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The Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (JNC 7) approved by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) provides a new guideline for the prevention and management of hypertension. This report is an update of the previous guideline (JNC VI) released in 1997. The complete document is available in the May 21, 2003 issue of JAMA. It also can be accessed on the NHLBI Web site

According to the NHLBI, hypertension affects about 50 million persons in the United States. Even though it is the most common primary diagnosis for office visits, 30 percent of patients are unaware they have hypertension. Antihypertensive therapy has been associated with reductions in stroke, myocardial infarction, and heart failure. According to the JNC 7 report, recent clinical trials have demonstrated that effective blood pressure control can be achieved in patients with hypertension, but the majority will need two or more drugs.

A new category of prehypertension has been added to the updated guidelines, and stages 2 and 3 hypertension have been combined. The accompanying table lists the new classifications. Initially, lifestyle modifications are recommended for patients with prehypertension rather than drug therapy. Patients with prehypertension (120/80 to 139/89 mm Hg) are at increased risk of progression to hypertension; those in the 130/80 to 139/89 mm Hg range have twice the risk to develop hypertension as those with lower values. These modifications include weight reduction, adopting the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, lowering sodium intake, getting more physical activity, and consuming alcohol in moderation.

BP classificationSystolic BP, mm Hg*Diastolic BP, mm Hg*Lifestyle modificationInitial drug therapy without compelling indicationInitial drug therapy with compelling indications
Normal< 120and< 80Encourage
Prehypertension120 to 139or80 to 89YesNo antihypertensive drug indicatedDrug(s) for the compelling indications‡
Stage 1 hypertension140 to 159or90 to 99YesThiazide-type diuretics for most; may consider ACE inhibitor, ARB, beta blocker, CCB, or combinationDrug(s) for the compelling indications, other antihypertensive drugs (diuretics, ACE inhibitor, ARB, beta blocker, CCB) as needed
Stage 2 hypertension160or100Yes2-drug combination for most (usually thiazide-type diuretic and ACE inhibitor or ARB or beta blocker or CCB)§Drug(s) for the compelling indications, other antihypertensive drugs (diuretics, ACE inhibitor, ARB, beta blocker, CCB) as needed

The goal of antihypertensive therapy is to reduce cardiovascular and renal morbidity and mortality. The primary focus should be on achieving the systolic blood pressure goal because most patients with hypertension, especially those 50 years and older, will reach the diastolic goal once the systolic goal has been attained. Maintaining targets less than 140/90 mm Hg is associated with a decrease in complications of cardiovascular disease. For hypertensive patients with renal disease, the goal should be less than 130/80 mm Hg.

Clinical trials have proved that several classes of drugs, including angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin-receptor blockers, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and thiazide-type diuretics, will reduce the complications of hypertension. Diuretics enhance the antihypertensive efficacy of multidrug regimens, can be useful in achieving blood pressure control, and are more affordable than other agents. Despite these findings, they remain underused. The JNC 7 report states that thiazide-type diuretics should be used as initial therapy for most patients with hypertension, alone or in combination with another agent, such as an ACE inhibitor or a beta blocker.

Addition of a second drug from a different class should be initiated when use of a single drug in adequate doses fails to achieve the blood pressure goal.

Key aspects of the new guideline include the following:

  • For patients older than 50 years, systolic blood pressure of more than 140 mm Hg is a more important risk factor for cardiovascular disease than diastolic blood pressure;

  • The risk of cardiovascular disease begins at 115/75 mm Hg and doubles with each increment of 20/10 mm Hg;

  • Patients with a systolic blood pressure of 120 to 139 mm Hg or a diastolic blood pressure of 80 to 89 mm Hg should be considered as prehypertensive and require health-promoting lifestyle modifications;

  • Thiazide-type diuretics should be used in drug treatment for most patients with uncomplicated hypertension, alone or combined with drugs from other classes;

  • Most patients with hypertension will require two or more medications to achieve goal blood pressure;

  • If blood pressure is more than 20/10 mm Hg above goal, consideration should be given to initiating therapy with two agents, one of which is usually a thiazide-type diuretic;

  • Effective therapy will control hypertension only if the patient is motivated.

The report also covers follow-up and monitoring, comorbidities requiring special attention (e.g., ischemic heart disease, diabetic hypertension, cerebrovascular disease), other special situations (e.g., minority populations, obesity, peripheral arterial disease), and improving hypertension control through adherence to regimens.

Coverage of guidelines from other organizations does not imply endorsement by AFP or the AAFP.

This series is coordinated by Michael J. Arnold, MD, Assistant Medical Editor.

A collection of Practice Guidelines published in AFP is available at

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Copyright © 2003 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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