Tardiness Of Science Leads To Public Skepticism

Man with heart surgery scar

AHA17 introduced the new and controversial blood pressure measurement guidelines during its annual conference in Anaheim, CA, raising skepticism among the masses. However, before I get into what the new recommendations are, let’s review how blood pressure measurements were initially established. Historically, over the last century blood pressure was unstudied by the scientific and clinical communities. The realization of the importance of blood pressure to health was first observed over 4,000 years ago by Huang-Ti, the yellow Emperor of China, with the discovery that people who ate too much salt had “harder” pulses and subsequently suffered from more strokes. Precise blood pressure measurements did not come about until Samuel Siegfried Ritter von Basch developed the sphygmomanometer for clinical use in 1880. The concept of hypertension, previously termed hyperpiesia, did not make an appearance until 1896 with the introduction of auscultating Korotkoff sounds (the sounds heard through the stethoscope when the artery is occluded by the sphygmomanometer and pressure released slowly). Having this new technology revolutionized the means of measuring blood pressure.

As the technique for blood pressure measurement developed over the years, so did the basis for the clinical diagnosis of hypertension. However, there was still debate as to how to treat it. In 1949, Charles Friedberg suggested in the textbook “Diseases of the Heart” that mild ‘benign’ hypertension (210/100 mmHg) should not be treated. During this era, blood pressure treatment was so controversial that the common thought was, ‘the greatest danger to a person with high blood pressure was knowing, because some fool will try to reduce it’. To put that statement into perspective, this was still a time when people were bled by leeches to reduce blood pressure leading to increased incidences of death due to the treatment regimen. The next era of treatment was to do nothing. Researchers started to explore the idea that high blood pressure was a compensatory mechanism, which should not be tampered even if clinicians were certain it could be controlled. This line of thinking lead to a significant increase in morbidity and mortality due to the prevalence of cardiovascular disease caused in part by the untreated blood pressure. With this revelation, high blood pressure treatment and diagnosis was forever changed, starting with the level that is considered to be high (140/80 mmHg).

The first clinical breakthrough in hypertension treatment was the discovery of diuretics. The addition of this drug class reduced strokes and ischemic heart disease by ~50% between 1972 and 1994. Once beta blockers came on the scene for the use of angina, researchers found, by accident none the less, that they additionally lowered blood pressure. How about that?! With research advancing in the area of hypertension, there have been several drugs to come on the market to lower blood pressure including calcium channel blockers and sartan drugs. These medications have had enormous benefit in reducing cardiovascular disease.

This leads us to the new classifications of normal and high blood pressure. At AHA17, the new range for defining systolic/diastolic blood pressure in patients is as follows: normal (90-119 mmHg/60-79 mmHg), prehypertension stages I (120-139 mmHg /81-89 mmHg), and stage II (≥160 mmHg/ ≥100 mmHg), as well as isolated systolic hypertension (≥140 mmHg /<90 mmHg). These measurements are based on the average seated, relaxed blood pressure reading obtained over two or more office visits. Although these are the new recommendations, these numbers are interpreted in conjunction with the clinician’s understanding of the patient’s history. For example, if a patient has a blood pressure of 130/80 mmHg coupled with other chronic diseases, such as diabetes mellitus type 1 or 2 or kidney disease, then this might require more aggressive treatment than a patient with no underlying disease. Physicians will furthermore take into account a patient’s age and overall health when making the decision of how or when to medicate. For example, a patient with resistant hypertension (blood pressure that fails to be reduced with appropriate antihypertensive medicine) may require additional drugs. Because we know that hypertension can be a consequence of both environmental and behavioral factors, AHA still suggests that we adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes a diet focused on heart health, as well as incorporating exercise into our activities of daily living.

There has been some controversy in the news and on social media about these changes. Whether these changes are in the best interest of the general population or in the interest of those who stand to gain from more people having hypertension. This could indeed lead to more patients taking medicine, and consequently more people having higher insurance premiums. It could also lead to more income for primary physicians and pharmaceutical companies. With these things being considered, none of them are more important than one’s health! There are things that cannot be controlled, such as age, sex and genetics, but that does not change the fact that it is the individual’s responsibility to live a healthy lifestyle and take control of their health care. This starts by knowing your risk, eating healthy, and regular exercise.

I know this is a lot of information to take in, but the real message here is: (1) do not allow social media to dictate your health. There are going to be a lot of things said by all types of people, but the best resource is your clinical staff. (2) Yes, regular medical appointments are still necessary to determine whether blood pressure should be treated or how it should be treated. (3) Although the blood pressure scale has changed slightly to incorporate more hypertensive stages, the definition of a healthy blood pressure has not really been modified. Experts (clinicians and scientist) are at odds as to whether patients over 70 years of age should be treated with additional medicines in order to reduce blood pressure. To add more antihypertensive drugs to a patient in such a vulnerable age group could lead to increased side effects such as hypotension, dizziness, increased prevalence of renal failure, enhanced fall risk, and alterations to activities of daily living. There are guidelines published in the JAMA for more information on the recommendations for the geriatric population. Science takes time. It takes a lot of studying to get the results that change the way experts view our clinical practice. It may seem to the general public that these data are tardy, but they are, in my opinion, timely.

I am interested in knowing more about the benefits of the new blood pressure scale and how this will tangibly change the occurrence of cardiovascular disease, cardiorenal disease, and chronic renal disease. I also wonder what questions will now arise in the general population regarding these new developments.

Anberitha Matthews, PhD is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis TN. She is living a dream by researching vascular injury as it pertains to oxidative stress, volunteers with the Mississippi State University Alumni Association, serves as Chapter President and does consulting work with regard to scientific editing.


Back To Reality: Incorporating Scientific Sessions Into Everyday Life

Nearly 2 weeks after AHA Scientific Sessions 2017, I’m back at home, sipping coffee on a chilly Sunday morning and thinking about Anaheim. The larger-than-life convention center, the numerous and packed sessions, and the built-in-a-day pharma fueled exhibit halls.

Working backwards, I remember fitting in a lunch sponsored by Amgen, given by Dr. Alan Brown, Director of Cardiology at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. It boasted boxed lunches but lacked elbow room, but by the end of the hour, I was impressed.

As a trained dietitian, I’m aware of at least some of the challenges in providing patient care. With new lipid guidelines, new blood pressure guidelines, new everything guidelines, up until now, the ease of popping a pill has seemed to rise above the effectiveness of lifestyle changes.

For the first time, I heard physicians calling on one another to sit face-to-face and eye-to-eye with their patients, and ask them about their physical activity. And their eating habits. In Dr. Brown’s words, by asking about these topics, you communicate to your patients that they are important.

Vegetables on the kitchen counter

(The DASH Diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and is rich in fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy while reduced in saturated fat and cholesterol. Content Provider: CDC/Amanda Mills. 2011)

At this same conference, Dr. Stephen Juraschek presented his results using the DASH diet – “The Effects of Sodium Reduction and the DASH Diet in Relation to Baseline Blood Pressure,” published just a few weeks ago. The investigators randomized adults with pre- or stage 1 hypertension (and not using blood pressure lowering medications) to DASH diet or control diet. Then in random order, over 4 weeks with 5-day breaks, participants were fed at 3 sodium levels: 50, 100, 150 mmol/day at 2,100 kcal. And what did they find? Adopting the DASH diet in combination with reduced sodium intake achieved “progressively greater reductions at higher levels of baseline SBP [≥150 mmHg]”.

So why am I talking about lifestyle modifications in a post about incorporating conference learnings back into your everyday reality at work? Well, a big announcement that came out of AHA17 was the new hypertension guidelines. I noticed recurrent statements and questions about these guidelines, in presentations, on social media, and from my peers when I returned home. 

At our first peer led research meeting back from AHA17, I printed off a few copies of the Top Ten Things To Know (PDF) about the 2017 hypertension guidelines. We touched on the implications of new classification categories – more treatment, higher prevalence, changes in comparisons over time in our epidemiologic studies. 

Connie Alfred (left), of the National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID), was shown having her blood pressure taken by Robyn Morgan, of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

(Connie Alfred (left), of the National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID), was shown having her blood pressure taken by Robyn Morgan, of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP), during a free blood pressure screening event that was held on all CDC campuses in 2005. Content Provider: CDC/CDC Connects. 2005.)

We were happy to see the focus on accurate measurement of BP, ensuring adequate rest time and taking averages of measurements, a technique we use in epidemiologic studies to minimize measurement error. Those of us particularly interested in physical activity and nutrition epidemiology rejoiced at the lifestyle modification efforts. We closed the discussion with an acknowledgement of conflicting and numerous other guidelines, the reality of putting them into practice – from primary care to cardiology clinics – as well as misinformation in the media coverage of the guidelines, such as misquoting the relaxed recommendations for older adults. 

With so much to chew on, I closed the discussion encouraging everyone around the table to think more on the implications of new guidelines, and our role in developing them, implementing them, and evaluating them.

Bailey DeBarmore Headshot

Bailey DeBarmore is a cardiovascular epidemiology PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on diabetes, stroke, and heart failure. She tweets @BaileyDeBarmore and blogs at baileydebarmore.com. Find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.



New Hypertension Guidelines: Should They Inform The Way We Care For Pediatric Cardiology Patients?

In reflecting on my time at the 2017 AHA Scientific Sessions, I can summarize my thought process about the new AHA Hypertension Guidelines as a complete 180.  When I first heard about the guidelines, my inner monologue went something like this:

“I don’t need to pay attention to these guidelines – they don’t affect me or my patients.  We already have separate pediatric guidelines.  Wasn’t there a new set of guidelines this year?  Maybe I should look at them a little closer…”

After reviewing the 2017 pediatric hypertension guidelines, I was pleasantly surprised how well they align with the AHA adult guidelines.  Of course, the pediatric guidelines are a little more complicated, since all of our patients have different cutoffs based on age, gender, and height.  And the cutoffs are now lower, due to the exclusion of overweight/obese children in the normative data.  But once our patients become adolescents, the cutoffs are the same as the new AHA adult guidelines.
After hearing that now nearly half of all U.S. adults will meet the diagnostic criteria for hypertension under the new guidelines, I realized: “OMG! Almost all of my patients are going to turn 13 and be hypertensive!”

Of course, as pediatric cardiologists, our patients are at especially high risk of cardiac events in adulthood, and the adult congenital heart disease population continues to grow every day, so we should be even more aware of hypertension as a significant risk factor for these children.  As Bradley Marino, MD (Chair of the Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young) stated during the CVDY Council Dinner, in light of current changes in the hypertension guidelines and national trends in increasing rates of obesity and heart disease-related morbidity, our role as pediatricians and cardiologists in prevention is becoming more and more important.

By the end of Scientific Sessions and in the weeks thereafter, I have become more cognizant and appreciative of my role in preventing my own patients from becoming hypertensive.  Of course, my ability to encourage lifestyle changes and long-term nutritional improvements is quite limited in the CVICU, but I am much more appreciative of my colleagues in the outpatient world and those who specialize in preventative pediatric cardiology.  I have also made a few lifestyle changes myself, since I am now uncomfortably close to meeting hypertension criteria.

David Werho Headshot

David K. Werho, MD is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California San Diego and a Pediatric Cardiac Intensivist at Rady Children’s Hospital – San Diego.  His research focuses on pediatric cardiac ICU outcomes as well as interventions and curriculum development in medical education.  He tweets @DWerho and contributes to the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Society Newsletter as editor and contributor.


A Gateway To Better Health With Bariatric Surgery

This year’s AHA Scientific Sessions has already provided the medical community with a number of excellent studies. The “GATEWAY” trial addresses the role of bariatric surgery and its effect on hypertension.1 Patients with morbid obesity are well known to be at risk for a litany of cardiorespiratory complications such as hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, atrial fibrillation, among others. For many, dietary and lifestyle changes are insufficient measures to lose weight. The past decade has seen the emergence of bariatric surgery as a valid therapeutic approach. In trained hands and with meticulous follow-up, the results can be life-changing.
There already exists published literature regarding the favorable effects on glycemic control and in some cases resolution of type II diabetes in patients followed after Roux-en-Y bypass.2
GATEWAY (Gastric Bypass to Treat Obese Patients With Steady Hypertension) was a randomized trial comparing the effects of surgery to standard medical therapy in patients with morbid obesity (defined as BMI 30-39.9 Kg/m2) with the purpose of achieving control of hypertension. The surgery technique employed is known as a Roux-en-Y gastric bypass; these patients also received medical treatment.
The primary endpoint was reduction of ≥30% of the total number of antihypertensive medications while maintaining systolic and diastolic blood pressure <140 mm/90 mm Hg, respectively, at 12 months. Although the study did not enroll patients with diabetes mellitus, and was limited to 100 patients, the results are intriguing. In fact, the surgical arm was six times more likely to require less antihypertensives with more than half achieving remission of hypertension using the above target value. Encouragingly, the surgical complication rate was low.

This is encouraging data which also leads to additional questions:

  • Are such results also obtainable with other surgical methods (Laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding; Sleeve gastrectomy;
  • Duodenal switch with biliopancreatic diversion etc)3?
  • Are the antihypertensive effects durable?

Larger studies will further validate these findings.


  1. Schiavon CA et al. Effects of Bariatric Surgery in Obese Patients With Hypertension The GATEWAY Randomized Trial (Gastric Bypass to Treat Obese Patients With Steady Hypertension). http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2017/11/10/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.032130
  2. Schauer PR Burguera B, Ikramuddin S, Cottam D, Gourash W, Hamad G, Eid GM, Mattar S, Ramanathan R, Barinas-Mitchel E, Rao RH, Kuller L, Kelley D. Effect of laparoscopic Roux-en Y gastric bypass on type 2 diabetes mellitus. Ann Surg. 2003 Oct;238(4):467-8
  3. Colquitt JL1, Pickett K, Loveman E, Frampton GK. Surgery for weight loss in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Aug 8;(8):CD00364

Christian Perzanowski Headshot

Christian Perzanowski is an electrophysiologist in Tampa, FL. His main interests are ablation techniques for atrial fibrillation and device therapy for congestive heart failure.