Lifewatch: Blood Pressure

WILMINGTON --  More than 70 million people in the United States have high blood pressure, which is a potentially dangerous condition that can lead to a stroke or heart attack.

Now, doctors are testing a new approach to bring blood pressure down.

Many people with high blood pressure have to change their habits and take medication everyday.

In some cases, your body becomes dependent upon medication so you have to take the pills for the rest of your life.

In 2007, George Curtis' high blood pressure gave him the scare of his life.

"Woke up one morning just couldn't breathe. My wife took me to the hospital," said Curtis.

His blood pressure spiked as high as 250 over 150.

When ten different blood pressure medications couldn't bring his blood pressure down, doctors offered another option.

Curtis became one of the first patients in the United States to be implanted with an experimental device, programmed by a computer to work with the body's natural mechanism for regulating blood pressure.

The device is implanted under George's skin, near his collar bone.  Wires follow the right and left carotid arteries in the neck, so the device can send energy to activate the baro-receptors, the body's natural blood pressure regulator.

As part of the clinical trial, Curtis still takes blood pressure medication, but he believes the implant has brought his blood pressure down.

In clinical trials in Europe, over 80% of patients showed significantly lower blood pressure after one year.  Curtis' doctor is hopeful he will see the same results.

Researchers are still recruiting volunteers for this blood pressure study.  Patients must be under the age of 80, with a specific blood pressure, and must be on at least two blood pressure medications in addition to a diuretic.

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"THE SILENT KILLER": According to the American Heart Association, more than 65 million people -- an estimated one in three Americans -- have high blood pressure, but more than 20 million of them don't know it. High blood pressure typically develops without signs or symptoms, so it is sometimes called the 'silent killer.' If you don't have high blood pressure by age 55, you have a 90 percent chance of developing it at some point in your life, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. High blood pressure can lead to serious problems such as stroke, heart failure, heart attack and kidney failure.

By definition, blood pressure is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of the arteries in the body. With every heartbeat, the heart pumps out blood into the arteries. When the heart beats, pumping the blood, the blood pressure is at its highest. This is the systolic pressure. Between beats, the heart is at rest -- this is the diastolic pressure. The standard blood pressure measurement is a combination of those two numbers.

  • 120/80 or lower is considered normal blood pressure
  • 140/90 or higher is defined as high blood pressure

High blood pressure can occur in children or adults, but it's more common among people over age 35. It's particularly prevalent in African Americans, middle-aged and elderly people, obese people, heavy drinkers and women taking birth control pills. It may run in families, but many people with a strong family history of high blood pressure never have it.

TREATMENT: For many of those diagnosed with high blood pressure, lifestyle changes, like cutting sodium in the diet, and quitting smoking, also medication, including diuretics, and regular monitoring can help bring blood pressure back to healthy levels. But for some patients with resistant hypertension, taking even several different medications a day is not enough to bring blood pressure back down to normal.

A NEW ALTERNATIVE: Clinical trials are underway in the United States to test the effectiveness of the RheosTM Baroreflex Hypertension TherapyTM System. "Rheos Therapy is designed to electrically activate the baroreflex, the body's own monitoring system to watch and control blood pressure," explained H.B. Karunaratne, M.D., cardiologist and lead investigator at Florida Hospital in Orlando, Fla. Patients in the trial are surgically implanted with a small computer-controlled pulse generator in the chest, with leads that follow the carotid arteries. The device then sends signals that electrically activate the body's baroreceptors, which in turn tell the body to reduce blood pressure. In European trials of this device, the majority of patients "showed a significant reduction in blood pressure that persisted at one year," according to Dr. Karunaratne.

Volunteers are still being recruited for the Rheos study. Patients must:

  • Have a systolic blood pressure of at least 160mmHg
  • Have a diastolic pressure of at least 80mmHg
  • Currently take at least three blood pressure medications, including a diuretic
  • Have taken these medications for at least one month

Reported by Kristy Ondo