WASHINGTON: In just four months, you could be tossing your blood pressure medication in the trash.
A new study presented at the American Heart Association’s annual Joint Hypertension Scientific Sessions highlights just how important lifestyle changes are for improving heart health and how impressive the results can be.
Researchers studied 129 overweight or obese men and women to see how diet alone or combined with exercise and weight management would affect blood pressure compared with a control group over 16 weeks. More than half of those enrolled in the trial were candidates for antihypertensive medication, although none were prescribed it at the time.
Participants were between the ages of 40 and 80 and had blood pressure readings between 130–160/80–99 mm Hg.
The group that changed their diet (using the DASH eating plan) along with nutrition counseling and exercise lost an average of 19 pounds and reduced their blood pressure by 16 mm Hg systolic and 10 mm Hg diastolic. Those who just changed their diet saw a decrease of about 11 mm Hg systolic and 8 mm Hg diastolic.
To put that in perspective, by the end of the study only 15 percent of individuals who changed their diet and undertook counseling and exercise still needed medication, compared with 23 percent of those who just changed their diet.
Nearly 50 percent of those in the control group still met criteria for blood pressure medication.
“The bottom line was that adopting these lifestyle measures really resulted in most folks not needing blood pressure medicines anymore,” said Dr. Alan Hinderliter, an associate professor of medicine at University of North Carolina and a co-author of the research study.
“It’s an important message and in some ways kind of a remarkable message that you can take yourself out of this group of patients who need medication to having a much healthier blood pressure and not needing to take drugs,” he said.
Changing guidelines on blood pressure
Physicians have put increased scrutiny on blood pressure since the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association changed their blood pressure guidelines in 2017.
Under the new guidelines, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 mm Hg, down from 140/90. A reading of 120–129 systolic, a previously healthy range, is now considered elevated.
As a consequence of these changes, about half of all adults in the United States meet the criteria for hypertension — around 103 million people.
These dramatic changes underscore the importance of lifestyle choices when it comes to staying healthy.
The study does have its limitations.
Since the infrastructure of the trial — including a diet plan, monitored exercise periods three times a week, and weight management counseling — was robust, the results are likely more impressive than would be observed for someone trying to make these changes on their own.
“The reality is insurance companies do not cover visits with nutritionists or dietitians, or provide supervised exercise programs,” Dr. Guy L. Mintz, director of cardiovascular health and lipidology of cardiology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, told Healthline.
“Without active intervention and management, physicians just providing patients with literature on a diet, and encouraging them to exercise is less than ideal and would not achieve these results,” said Mintz, who wasn’t involved in the study.
While updates to blood pressure guidelines may seem intimidating, doctors hope they may encourage individuals to make important and lasting changes in their lives.
This study should further encourage people. The difference between having to take blood pressure medication and not having to is likely within reach with enough motivation.
“This study proves what we as cardiologists see in the office. We always talk about lifestyle modifications, including diet, in order to reduce cardiovascular risk. It is very hard to change one’s habits, and very easy to take a pill. But, for those that do take control of their diet and exercise, we can and do stop many blood pressure and even diabetic medications,” said Dr. Satjit Bhusri, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.