Blood Pressure Begins to Decline 14 Years Before Death, Study Says

Geriatric nurse measuring blood pressure of patient. (Getty Images)
Previous studies reported falls in blood pressure late in life, but this study is the first published data on individual trajectories before death. (Getty Images)

Blood pressure in the elderly gradually begins to decrease about 14 or so years before death, according to a new study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine.

Researchers from UConn Health and the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K. looked at the electronic medical records of 46,634 British citizens who had died at age 60 or older. The large sample size included people who were healthy as well as those who had conditions such as heart disease or dementia.

They found blood pressure declines were steepest in patients with dementia, heart failure, late-in-life weight loss, and those who had high blood pressure to begin with. But long-term declines also occurred without the presence of any of these diagnoses.

“Our work highlights the importance of conducting research evaluating older patients like those seen in physician practices everywhere,” said George Kuchel, one of the study authors and director of the University of Connecticut Center on Aging at UConn Health.  

However, Kuchel emphasized, “I would be very concerned if anyone were to interpret our article as suggesting that hypertension should not be treated in late life or that they should stop their blood pressure medications.”

The findings should make both doctors and researchers carefully consider what dropping blood pressure really means for older patients, he added.

Doctors have long known that in the average person, blood pressure rises from childhood to middle age. But normal blood pressure in the elderly has been less certain.

Some studies have indicated that blood pressure might drop in older patients and treatment for hypertension has been hypothesized as explaining late-life lower blood pressures. But this study found blood pressure declines were also present in those without hypertension diagnoses or anti-hypertension medication prescriptions.

Further, the evidence was clear that the declines were not due simply to the early deaths of people with high blood pressure.

More research is needed to figure out why blood pressure declines in the elderly in this way.

“It is important for physicians to understand as much as possible around aging and blood pressure, to help personalize treatment,” said David Meltzer, the study’s lead author and professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Exeter. Meltzer also has a visiting Professorship at the University of Connecticut Center on Aging.

“Observational studies such as ours need to be followed by rigorous clinical trials in order to guide clinical care guidelines,” said Kuchel, the Travelers Chair in Geriatrics and Gerontology at UConn Health.

In addition to Meltzer and Kuchel, study authors included Scott Welsh, fellow in UConn Health’s Geriatrics Program; six additional researchers from the University of Exeter; and a doctor at the National Institute on Aging.

The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research School of Public Health Research Aging Well Programme in the U.K.; Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care, also in the U.K.;  a doctoral research fellowship; and the National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program in the U.S.