By Robert Preidt
But new research suggests that up-and-down shifts in blood pressure may be equally hazardous to your health.
"The takeaway from the study is, if you allow your blood pressure to be uncontrolled for any period of time, or notice big changes in your blood pressure between doctor visits, you increase your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney or heart failure or even death," said study author Dr. Brian Clements. He's an internal medicine specialist at Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City.
One cardiologist who reviewed the findings wasn't surprised.
"Swings in blood pressure cause more stress to the arteries of the heart and brain than a consistent blood pressure," said Dr. Satjit Bhusri, of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
He said the study supports the notion that high blood pressure medications should be taken continuously, not just when pressure seems to spike.
"All too often patients take their blood pressure medications 'as needed,' " Bhusri said. "It is up to their doctor to reinforce that blood pressure medications are not 'as needed' meds, and that in fact the 'as needed' use of such meds can cause more harm than not taking them at all."
The findings were to be presented Monday in Anaheim, Calif., at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association.
In the study, Clements' team tracked the medical records of nearly 11,000 patients. The researchers found that those whose systolic blood pressure (the upper number in a reading) varied by as much as 30 or 40 points between doctor visits were much more likely to die over five years of follow-up than those with less extreme changes in their blood pressure.
Normal systolic blood pressure is 120 mm Hg, while a high reading is 130 or higher, according to new American Heart Association guidelines issued Monday.
"Blood pressure is one of those numbers we encourage people to keep track of, as it's one indicator of your health heart," Clements said. He urges patients "to do everything they can to control their blood pressure on a regular basis."
Clements advised, "Eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and if your doctor has prescribed you medications for your blood pressure, be sure and take them consistently. Because any time your blood pressure is out of control, you're at higher risk of injury or death."
Another cardiologist who reviewed the findings said more study may still be needed, however.
"The result of this study is intriguing, but not firmly conclusive," said Dr. Joseph Diamond, who directs nuclear cardiology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. He noted that people's blood pressure often fluctuates throughout the day.
Also, experts note that studies presented at medical meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.