Thursday, April 29, 2021

Hypertension - Clinical and Historical Significance for Psychiatry



I have written about hypertension in the past on this blog. During the treatment and ongoing care of the many patients I have seen over the years it is always present. The prevalence of hypertension increases with age and other comorbidities. The case of the patients I have seen alcohol and other substance use, obesity, smoking, stress, and prescribed medications are all risk factors. As a psychiatrist following blood pressures, I have to be more compulsive than the average physician. I have rarely been in an outpatient clinic where blood pressures were routinely checked. On the inpatient units where I have worked, blood pressure monitoring could also be a problem. I am reminded of teaching in services on blood pressure monitoring. In inpatient settings is also fairly common to see patients admitted who have discontinued antihypertensive therapy and developed dangerously high blood pressures. In many of those cases they continued to refuse the medication. I was put in the uneasy position of having to follow extremely high blood pressures until a probate court judge could convince the patient it was in their best interest to take those medications.

I have also seen the long-term consequences of uncontrolled hypertension in the form of acute hemorrhagic strokes, subarachnoid hemorrhages, aortic aneurysms, hypertensive cardiomyopathy, and the variations of hypertension related dementia. Many of these findings were in the context of an acute emergency. Several were more of an unexpected finding such as the likely long-term consequences of eclampsia and a brain imaging study done 30 years later.

In the day-to-day care of patients, knowing whether or not they may have hypertension is a critical aspect of care. That is true whether you are considering a medication that can elevate or decrease blood pressure, advising the patient on lifestyle changes to improve their health, or discussing their current exercise program. Most people are unaware of the acute effects of exercise on blood pressure and why strenuous exercise may be contraindicated until they have adequate control of blood pressure.

For all of these reasons, I am always interested in when new guidelines come out or blood pressure screening. Over the years that I have been practicing the suggested cutoffs demarcating hypertension and ranged anywhere from 120/80 to [Age + 100]/90. The [Age + 100]/90 cutoff was a guideline we used when I was an intern in the 1980s. That meant that if you are treating a 70-year-old their acceptable blood pressure was a maximum of 170/90. Over the years extensive research has examined blood pressure dependent outcomes and determined that systolic blood pressures that high are problematic. The question is always-where is the cutoff? Specifically at what point are we maximizing the gains and reducing the risks from overtreatment and using excessive diagnostics. 

The question is one that the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) seeks to answer. They published their comprehensive look at the issue recently (1).  Hypertension prevalence of 45% of all adults in the US is noted as well as the morbidity and mortality associated with untreated hypertension.  The quoted range of cutoffs is from 130/80 to 140/90. The technical considerations of blood pressure determinations are discussed. Suggested sensitivity of 0.8 and specificity 0.55 for office blood pressure measurement (OBPM) and 0.84 and 0.6 for home blood pressure measurement (HBPM).  Review of 13 study showed that the harms of blood pressure screening are minimal. 

The standard online medical text in the US is UpToDate and it defines hypertension as <120 mmHg systolic and <80 mmHg diastolic with Stage 1 hypertension being 130-139 mmHg systolic and 80-89 mmHg diastolic.  Stage 2 hypertension is defined as systolic of 140 mmHg and diastolic of 90 mmHg. UpToDate also defines a category of treated hypertension for any patient taking antihypertensive medication irrespective of their blood pressure reading. 

The USPSTF paper had an interesting section called How Does Evidence Fit with Biological Understanding? This did not involve a discussion of pathophysiology, but the description of subtypes and what the implications might be.  Sustained hypertension was defined as elevated blood pressure determine both in the office and outside of office settings. Whitecoat hypertension was defined as elevated blood pressure in the office but not in ambulatory settings. Masked hypertension was defined as elevated blood pressure outside of the office but not in office settings. For the purposes of the document, sustained hypertension is considered the entity that the recommendations are based on and the overall risk of cardiovascular disease is sustained hypertension > masked hypertension > whitecoat hypertension.  The diagnosis of white coat hypertension is made by comparing OBPM with HBPM or ABPM (ambulatory blood pressure measurement).  No specific biological mechanisms are discussed. The document points out that even though masked hypertension and whitecoat hypertension are associated with adverse cardiovascular outcomes there is no current evidence that treatment improves as outcomes and they consider that to be a knowledge gap.

UpToDate take a more detailed look at primary and secondary hypertension but does not elaborate much more on the pathogenesis and biology of hypertension. For example, it outlines the autonomic nervous system, the renin aldosterone system, and total plasma volume as being the main systems involved in hypertension. Secondary causes and screening for these causes is suggested but there are no confirmatory tests for essential hypertension.  Interestingly atypical antipsychotics and antidepressants are on a list of medications thought to contribute to hypertension but in personal correspondence with a hypertension specialist – he considered even the most likely medications in that category (bupropion and venlafaxine) to be rare causes.  Empirical treatment and how to treat more resistant forms of hypertension are reviewed. The medications typically address a purported mechanism of hypertension but there is no suggestion to determine the underlying physiology and match it with a medication effect.

Monitoring is another role that psychiatrists can fill. I see the same patient ranging from 6 to 24 visits per year and ideally those would all be heart rate and blood pressure data points. With many of those patients I also discuss home monitoring since approved devices are now very affordable and many of them are being treated often intermittently for hypertension. It is also critical that some patients are able to do HBPM if they are treated with medications that can clearly affect blood pressure such as beta-blockers, prazosin, and clonidine. For subgroup of people who have sustained tachycardia who need close monitoring I also recommend HBPM.

Every psychiatrist should be aware of both the USPSTF screening guideline and either the UpToDate chapter or a similar comprehensive book chapter or review.  Making sure that the patients in question get adequate screening, evaluation, and treatment is as critical as the treatment for their psychiatric disorder.  Comorbidities that are the direct result of end organ damage from hypertension also need to be addressed. I have been able to advise patients on dietary changes, exercise programs, and accepting treatment for obstructive sleep apnea when it was ignored from other sources.

Apart from the medical and clinical considerations of hypertension – are there any other lessons for psychiatry?  It turns out there are and they were first noted in 1960 and since forgotten.  Until that year there was a predominance of the view that diseases are caused by discrete pathological lesions. That view was advanced by Virchow and Koch and was the predominant view of the day. A corollary is that there are always qualitative differences between health and disease.  If a person has the required lesion, they have the disease and if not, they are healthy. That theory was disrupted by a paper by Oldham, et al (3) on the nature of essential hypertension. At that time, the dominant theory of hypertension was that it was an autosomal dominant determined disease that “separately sharply” from the normotensive population. The authors looked at collected data on families and showed that the percentage of families in previous generations with hypertension was too low for Mendelian inheritance.  The authors looked at data on the blood pressure ranges of first-degree relatives of their index hypertensives. The graphical data was interpreted as bimodal distribution of blood pressures consistent with a clear demarcation between elevated blood pressure and normotension.  However, re-examination of the data and a further trial showed that the frequency distribution of blood pressures was not consistent with a bimodal distribution or as the author’s state:

 “seems to illustrate once again that it is not hypertension that is inherited but the degree of hypertension.”

The authors use this data to reject a dominant gene and qualitative differences between disease and non-disease state.  They go on to describe the biological implausibility:

The alternative hypothesis-that arterial pressure is inherited polygenically over the whole range, and that the inheritance is of the same kind and degree in the so-called normal range as in that characteristic of essential hypertension-is in general conformity with biological theory and with the facts of observation. Just as stature, the classical human example of polygenic inheritance, is the sum of a number of separate bones and tissues, so is the arterial pressure the resultant of a number of discrete components of the cardiovascular system. One need only mention the radii of different parts of the vascular system, the lengths of the vessels constituting the resistance, their elasticity, the chemical composition.”  p. 1092.

As I read that passage, I was reminded of current work looking at the tens to hundreds of network genes activated across the genotypes of millions of unique individuals as a basis for the polygene events that occur in polygenic disorders including psychiatric disorders.

Once the polygene quantitative model was accepted over the single dominant gene qualitative model, it led to a broader application including the obvious one to psychiatric disorders.  Psychiatric disorders have been demonstrated to have familial patterns and some have a very high degree of heritability, but they also do not follow single dominant gene inheritance.  To recap, Oldham, et al basically blew the single gene, qualitative difference between disease state and normality, single pathological mechanism out of the water for complex disorders and they did it in 1960! No philosophy or rhetoric – just good old science. At one point the authors point out that “no student of genetics” had explained the dips in the hypertension frequency graphs.

The psychiatric significance of these authors’ work occurs when Kendell (4) highlighted it 15 years later to illustrate why the single pathological mechanism as “proof” of psychiatric disease is a failure.  Hypertension is a complex polygenic disorder that all psychiatrists must concern themselves with if they are actively treating patients.  It is also a useful comparison model for the psychiatric disorders that we treat,

 the body fluids, the action of the heart, and the

 George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  US Preventive Services Task Force, Krist AH, Davidson KW, Mangione CM, Cabana M, Caughey AB, Davis EM, Donahue KE, Doubeni CA, Kubik M, Li L, Ogedegbe G, Pbert L, Silverstein M, Stevermer J, Tseng CW, Wong JB. Screening for Hypertension in Adults: US Preventive Services Task Force Reaffirmation Recommendation Statement. JAMA. 2021 Apr 27;325(16):1650-1656. doi: 10.1001/jama.2021.4987. PMID: 33904861.

2:  Basile JM, Bloch MJ. (2021) Overview of Hypertension in Adults. In GL Bakris, WG White, GP Forman, L Kunins, UpToDate (Accessed 4/28/2021) from:

3:  Oldham PD, Pickering G, Fraser Roberts JA, Sowry GS. The nature of essential hypertension. Lancet. 1960 May 21;1(7134):1085-93. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(60)90982-x. PMID: 14428616.

4:  Kendell RE. The concept of disease and its implications for psychiatry. Br J Psychiatry. 1975 Oct;127:305-15. doi: 10.1192/bjp.127.4.305. PMID: 1182384.

5:  Breu AC, Axon RN. Acute Treatment of Hypertensive Urgency. J Hosp Med. 2018 Dec 1;13(12):860-862. doi: 10.12788/jhm.3086. Epub 2018 Oct 31. PMID: 30379139.

6:  Rossi GP, Rossitto G, Maifredini C, Barchitta A, Bettella A, Latella R, Ruzza L, Sabini B, Seccia TM. Management of hypertensive emergencies: a practical approach. Blood Press. 2021 May 8:1-12. doi: 10.1080/08037051.2021.1917983. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33966560.


Graphics Credit:

The image at the top of this blog is for Shutterstock per their standard licensing agreement. I picked it based on the fact that it reminded me of a patient I saw in the emergency department when I was an intern.  He had a large left basal ganglia cerebral hemorrhage that was most likely due to sustained hypertension.


Editing this post was tough. For some reason my Word processer switched to Polish language and stopped automatically checking my grammar and spelling. That was compounded by the fact that I was dictating in Dragon and sound alike words that were spelled correctly were substituted.  I ended up proofing everything on my phone and just finished tonight (4/29).   


  1. I appreciate your extensive report on hypertension and the importance of following it. I have two comments. First, most of my patients come to their psychiatric appointment in a fair amount of emotional distress. Their blood pressure is routinely higher in my office than elsewhere. I advise them to follow their blood pressure outside my office. I continue to take readings, but given the pervasiveness of the confounding emotional distress I doubt the results have any relevance to their cardiovascular risk

    Second, I know that UpToDate uses cutoffs of 120 for systolic and 80 for diastolic blood pressure. However, my sense of the research is that the number needed to treat to reduce significant adverse effect from SBP <130 and DBP <90 is less than the number who are harmed by blood pressure medications. The page on treating mild hypertension on site is dated, but they found a similar conclusion for SBP<140 and DBP<90.

    1. Appreciate you reading the blog and the detailed comments:

      In my experience emotional distress is an exaggerated cause for hypertension. I base that on extensive experience treating patients in acute care settings with severe problems. I have the time to look at the trends in that setting, and I know the way vitals are being determined. I certainly would prefer follow up with primary care, but due to the fragmented follow up that most of my patients receive - it is highly likely that I will make more blood pressure and heart rate determinations than they will get is a primary care setting. It may even be preferable to teach the patient to take their own BP and bring that in to their next appointment.

      Very current research confirms that 120/80 cutoff probably has better outcomes but the trade off is more side effects including syncope. Relative to the above post - the idea of BP being a polygenic determined quantitative rather than qualitative measure is relevant. Specifically the observation that hypertension yes or no is not being inherited but how high the blood pressure goes. In that case, the question becomes what group is more likely to proceed to various phenotypes suggested or even accelerated or malignant hypertension. I don't know the answer to that or at least any research answers. That said all treatment of complex polygenic disorders should involve a careful informed consent discussion and include the patient's preference.

      The SPRINT Research Group. Final report of a trial of intensive versus standard blood-pressure control. N Engl J Med 2021; 384: 1921-30.

    2. Full reference for above:

      SPRINT Research Group, Lewis CE, Fine LJ, Beddhu S, Cheung AK, Cushman WC, Cutler JA, Evans GW, Johnson KC, Kitzman DW, Oparil S, Rahman M, Reboussin DM, Rocco MV, Sink KM, Snyder JK, Whelton PK, Williamson JD, Wright JT Jr, Ambrosius WT. Final Report of a Trial of Intensive versus Standard Blood-Pressure Control. N Engl J Med. 2021 May 20;384(20):1921-1930. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1901281. PMID: 34010531.

  2. In view of the above comments by Dr. Joe - I thought I would post a couple of additional points.

    There is no singular right or wrong approach to this problem. That allows for plenty of contrasting views. In fact the IOM definition of Evidence Based Medicine takes into consideration how available evidence is applied to every clinical scenario for a specific patient and incorporates that patient's personal preferences, ability to follow up with the plan, and available resources.

    As a further example, I posted 2 additional blood pressure references (5 and 6 above). I have read 5 and am waiting for the text on 6. The authors suggest a very permissive approach to blood pressure unless there is clear evidence of end organ damage. As I have previously posted - I have been in that situation waiting for a legal intervention that might cause the patient to take their antihypertensive medication. Not all of those acute outcomes have been good even though I have personally seen other patients tolerate very high blood pressures for weeks at a time. That leads me to speculate that because of the well known health risk factors in people with severe mental illness - may tolerate blood pressure elevations less well than most medical and surgical patients.

    Those encounters clearly have an effect on my views about hypertension and how it must be assessed and treated.