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Drugs May Help More Americans Keep Hypertension Under Control

The use of multiple blood pressure medications may be helping some Americans bring their hypertension under control.
The use of multiple blood pressure medications may be helping some Americans bring their hypertension under control.

With all the attention on meningitis, hantavirus, and West Nile virus outbreaks lately, it's worth remembering that regular old cardiovascular disease is still the number one cause of death in the U.S. (Cancer is close behind at number two; lower respiratory diseases are a very distant third.)

So it's encouraging that the most recent results of an biennial survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a substantial increase in the number of Americans who have their hypertension, which is a big risk factor for cardiovascular disease, under control. More than 47 percent of adults who had high blood pressure are effectively managing it compared with just 29 percent ten years ago. (The CDC defines "under control" blood pressure as being below 140/90 on average.)

"It's heading in the right direction," Vicki Burt, one of the CDC statisticians who analyzed the survey results, tells Shots. "We still have a lot of room for increasing the control rates. But this is optimistic improvement in the last decade."

The survey, called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, stopped short of identifying a specific cause for this uptick. But it did note that the number of hypertensive Americans who are on blood pressure medication increased by almost 14 percent over the past decade.

This isn't surprising, as pharmaceutical companies have rolled out a bevy of new treatments - like beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers and others. Burt says this variety gives doctors the option of prescribing low doses of several drugs rather than a high dose of one drug, which she says reduces the likelihood of negative side effects.

And judging from the survey results, it looks like doctors are doing just that. The number of hypertension patients taking more than one blood pressure medication increased by almost 11 percent over the past decade.

Of course, taking more drugs isn't always a great option for people with hypertension. Aside from their potential side effects, taking medication for a long period of time can be costly.

Burt says, overall, the survey results are encouraging, but shouldn't necessarily be cause for celebration. First of all, if 47 percent of hypertension patients have their blood pressure under control, that means 53 percent don't. Second, Burt says it was puzzling that only a third of the hypertension patients the CDC surveyed were taking diuretic drugs when those drugs are the recommended first-line medication to combat high blood pressure.

And finally, Burt says, though it's good news that more people are getting their hypertension under control, "we'd like to see more people prevent their hypertension. But that's more difficult."

The CDC's findings were published today in the journal Circulation.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schultz