Written by By Ilya Somin, CNN
Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States is taking prescription medication for high blood pressure, according to a new analysis of health care records.
The study found that nearly 80 million adults, or 18% of the US population, are taking blood pressure drugs that are implicated in developing the disease, according to a news release. At least three-quarters of them had previously been diagnosed with hypertension, which causes headaches, trouble sleeping, dizziness, fatigue and dry mouth.
The study’s authors write that they hope their findings will “intensify public health efforts to reduce the number of people who are hypertensive and prevent deaths from hypertension through reduced blood pressure medication use.”
The research was published online December 18 in the journal, PLOS Medicine.
Rather than just surveying the number of hypertensive adults who are taking blood pressure medications, the researchers collected data from Medicaid plans in all 50 states and D.C. between 2010 and 2014. The teams looked at details about patients’ use of blood pressure medications and weight, blood pressure tests and prior diagnoses of hypertension, such as high blood pressure (95th percentile), generalized high blood pressure (95th percentile), or hypertension Type II, meaning it is not caused by elevated cholesterol or high blood sugar.
They also analyzed prescription drug purchases and questionnaires written by patients, family doctors and other health care providers.
The study’s authors found that roughly 81 million patients were on prescribed blood pressure medications, and 1.4 million adults were on “excessively high doses of blood pressure medications,” which could be a sign of potentially harmful effects, such as nerve damage, paralysis or death.
The highest rate of hypertensive patients was among those whose weight was around 198 pounds or more (10% of the population), the study found.
In general, there was a dramatic increase in the number of people prescribed blood pressure medications after 1996, the study’s authors write. The average number of patients who took their medication on schedule decreased from 106 in 1999 to 39 in 2015. The average number of patients who received the “appropriate dose” increased from 13 in 1999 to 61 in 2015.
Writing in a comment published with the study, the co-authors of the Cancer Prevention Institute of California review, “Excessive use of drugs for hypertension may be highly detrimental to the individual patient and the public health,” which they refer to as “too much medicine too young.”
That means that excessive blood pressure medication use “frequently is associated with self-identified problems such as energy problems, depression, weakness, injury, high blood pressure or heart failure.”
According to Dr. Robert Baker, a health policy professor at Emory University, it’s not just patients who may suffer from excessive blood pressure medication use. Hospitals, health insurers and pharmacies are among the places where patients can receive drugs for hypertension through excess prescriptions for medications. The large majority of those patients may be taking a drug with an incorrect dosage, which could cause serious side effects, such as high blood pressure, inflammation or stroke.
“You have more problems than just like the individual who’s taking these medications,” said Baker, who was not involved in the new study. “But there are a lot of issues surrounding drugs that also happen to be on these medications.”
“If we are going to break the cycle of high blood pressure, we need to keep the momentum going,” Baker said. “We are still seeing a lot of people who are in blood pressure control situations but being prescribed blood pressure medications to try to maintain control, which is more effective than anything else.”
There are some troubling cases where patients were prescribed high doses of drugs by their primary care doctors because it was the only thing they could do, Baker said. Those patients “don’t know how to use those medications appropriately.”
“That’s a huge problem we need to deal with,” he said.
Some of the potential dangers of excessive blood pressure medication use include nerve damage, such as temporary numbness, weight gain, loss of sex drive, or increased death from cardiovascular disease, the study’s authors write. Also, adverse reactions to blood pressure medication include more serious problems, such as nerve damage, damage to the heart muscle, or kidney or bladder problems.