When your heart contracts and squeezes blood out into your network of arteries, the pressure inside those blood vessels is at its highest. This is called systolic pressure and it’s the top number on your blood pressure reading. In between beats, the heart relaxes and the pressure drops. This is your diastolic blood pressure, and it’s the reading’s bottom number.
The new guidelines stem from the 2017 results of the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT), which studied more than 9,000 adults ages 50 and older who had systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) of 130 mm Hg or higher and at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The study's aim was to find out whether treating blood pressure to lower the systolic number to 120 mm Hg or less was superior to the standard target of 140 mm Hg or less. The results found that targeting a systolic pressure of no more than 120 mm Hg reduced the chance of heart attacks, heart failure, or stroke over a three-year period.
"Blood pressure guidelines are not updated at regular intervals. Instead, they are changed when sufficient new evidence suggests the old ones weren't accurate or relevant anymore," says Dr. Paul Conlin, an endocrinologist with Harvard-affiliated VA Boston Healthcare System and Brigham and Women's Hospital. "The goal now with the new guidelines is to help people address high blood pressure — and the problems that may accompany it like heart attack and stroke — much earlier."
Typically, more attention is given to systolic blood pressure (the first number) as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over 50. In most people, systolic blood pressure rises steadily with age due to the increasing stiffness of large arteries, long-term buildup of plaque and an increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease.