We’ve all had the pleasure of sitting in the doctor’s office, sleeve rolled up, while a nurse or technician straps on an inflatable cuff and starts pumping it up while listening on a stethoscope.
Blood pressure is one of the most fundamental medical measurements, and for good reason: High blood pressure is considered one of primary cause of many cardiovascular problems associated with heart attacks, strokes and blood clots — all potentially serious complications.
In particular, high blood pressure can damage the lining of a person’s arteries, increasing the risk of a buildup of fatty deposits that can restrict blood flow to the heart, and cause thickening of the walls of the left ventricle in the heart, both of which can trigger a heart attack.
Currently, one-third of all adult Americans have high blood pressure, which, interestingly, aligns with the fact that one-third of that same population are considered obese.
More on that in a moment.
This backgrounder on hypertension is relevant because the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has just suggested a major re-calibration of what is considered “normal” blood pressure. A new research study seems to indicate that the ideal systolic pressure (measured when the heart contracts) should be 120, not 140, as a generation of medical students and nurses have been taught.
In its study, the institute offered what NBC News labeled “a startling new statistic:” lowering blood pressure to a target of 120 instead of 140 could reduce the cardiovascular death toll by 25%. Based on mortality statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’re talking about the prevention of some 200,000 deaths a year
Of course, as all good scientists do, the NHLBI researchers cautioned that more study is needed, but in a surprising development, they halted the study prematurely to announce their findings.
“This study provides potentially lifesaving information that will be useful to health care providers as they consider the best treatment options for some of their patients, particularly those over the age of 50,” said Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Beginning in 2009, Gibbons’ team studied more than 9,300 men and women 50 and older, keeping some at the target of 140 and taking the rest to a lower systolic blood pressure level of 120. The results were revealing.
“This is huge,” Dr. Julia Lewis, a kidney specialist at Vanderbilt University who took part in the study, told NBC News. “Twenty-five percent less deaths and a 33% [fewer] heart attacks, strokes and heart failure — you don’t get that (by) lowering cholesterol. You don’t get that treating people to prevent heart attacks.”
A better way to go
Let’s assume that this study’s data are as compelling as they appear. That means millions of Americans would benefit from reducing what had previously been considered “normal” blood pressure. But how to you do that?
Since obesity is one of the primary conditions that tends to trigger hypertension, and some 75 million Americans suffer from both, it seems reasonable that losing weight (and maintaining an optimal weight for one’s body type) would be the most promising route to lowering blood pressure.
In fact, many doctors are wary of lowering blood pressure with medication, because if the dosage isn’t closely controlled, patients can suffer from balance and memory issues, especially the elderly. In the NHLBI study, one-quarter of the participants were 75 or older.
More to the point, the American Heart Association has long recommended that most people should try to lower their blood pressure with “lifestyle changes” before going on medication. Simply losing weight typically works well, AHA studies have shown.
So how do you do that?
One word: protein.
To support that approach, the Beef Checkoff program is promoting a new program called “The 30 Day Protein Challenge.” The program, which is funded by the Checkoff, is billed as “a fun, step-by-step way” to help people consume an optimal amount of protein every day.
The program calls for participants to adhere to a month-long schedule, focusing on different activities each day, including writing down all the foods that are eaten, then reviewing that food journal, then changing and documenting one’s diet to add more protein-rich foods.
I’m not sure how much “fun” all that would be, but the facts are persuasive: adding protein and reducing carbs helps most people to lose weight and maintain a healthier weight. That supports a more active metabolism, and that almost automatically causes blood pressure be lowered.
It’s something we now know might be the most significant action anyone could take to positively affect well-being and longevity.
Eat more meat and dairy.
It’s that simple.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.