Small reductions in blood pressure ‘slash the risk of heart disease’

Small reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol ‘could cut heart disease risk by up to 80 per cent even in healthy people’

  • Scientists analysed the heart health of more than 438,000 people 
  • They said good heart health ‘pays very big dividends’ 
  • Expert urges people to take advantage of free health checks on the NHS 

Even small reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol could slash a person’s risk of heart disease, research suggests.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge analysed the heart health of more than 438,000 people for up to 12 years. 

They found even ‘small reductions’ to their ‘bad’ cholesterol and blood pressure lowered their lifetime risk of a heart attack, stroke or early death by up to 80 per cent.

People involved in the study were all healthy, suggesting that a small drop could be beneficial for anyone. 

The team stressed sustaining good heart health ‘pays very big dividends’ and hope their study will be a ‘motivator for long term change’.

Another expert stresses high cholesterol and blood pressure is treatable via lifestyle changes and medication, and urges people take up free health checks on the NHS. 

Small reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol ‘slash a person’s heart disease risk’ (stock)

‘Even small reductions in both “bad” cholesterol and blood pressure for sustained periods of time can pay very big health dividends,’ lead author Professor Brian Ference said.

‘And dramatically reduce the lifetime risk of developing heart and circulatory disease.

‘Heart and circulatory diseases steal the lives of 168,000 people each year in the UK. 

‘It’s vital we do everything possible to help prevent people developing these life-threatening conditions.

Heart disease is responsible for a quarter of all deaths in the UK and US, statistics show.

Although its link to high cholesterol and blood pressure has long been known, it had never been quantified. 

To learn more, the researchers analysed 438,952 people who were recruited into the UK Biobank study between 2006 and 2010, and followed up until last year.

The participants, who were otherwise healthy, were divided into groups according to their genetic risk for heart disease. This was used to estimate their lifetime odds of the condition.

Of the participants, 24,980 suffered a major coronary event over the study duration.

This was defined as a non-fatal heart attack, ischaemic stroke – when a blood clot cuts off oxygen to the brain – and death due to heart disease. 

After having their blood pressure and cholesterol measured, those who managed to reduce their levels, and keep them low, were less at risk.


Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a major cause of death both in the UK and worldwide. CHD is sometimes called ischaemic heart disease.

The main symptoms of CHD are: angina (chest pain), heart attacks, heart failure.

However, not everyone has the same symptoms and some people may not have any before CHD is diagnosed.

Coronary heart disease is the term that describes what happens when your heart’s blood supply is blocked or interrupted by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries.

Over time, the walls of your arteries can become furred up with fatty deposits. This process is known as atherosclerosis and the fatty deposits are called atheroma.

You can reduce your risk of getting CHD by making some simple lifestyle changes.

These include:

  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • being physically active
  • giving up smoking
  • controlling blood cholesterol and sugar levels 

 Source: NHS

Results revealed a 1 mmol/L reduction in ‘bad cholesterol’, combined with a 10 mmHg decrease in blood pressure, lowered the participants’ risk of heart disease over their lifetime by 80 per cent.

Cholesterol can be ‘bad’, also known as LDL, which builds up in the arteries and increases the risk of heart disease.

In contrast, ‘good’ cholesterol, or HDL, removes LDL from the blood.

A ‘bad’ cholesterol reading of less than 2.6 mmol/L is considered optimal, while 2.6-to-3.4 is ‘near optimal’, 3.5-to-4.1 ‘borderline’ high and 4.2-to-4.9 high, according to the Government of Alberta.

Blood pressure is measured in two numbers. The first, systolic, looks at the pressure in a person’s blood vessels when their heart beats. The second, diastolic, measures the pressure between beats.

A normal reading is less than 120/80 mmHg, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 120/80 and 139/89 mmHg is considered at risk of high blood pressure, and more than 140/90 mmHg is defined as hypertension.

The study also found the combination of reduced cholesterol and blood pressure lowered the participants’ risk of death from heart disease by 67 per cent.   

And even small reductions had benefits. A decrease of 0.3 mmol/L cholesterol and 3 mmHg blood pressure halved the risk of heart disease over the participants’ lifetime. 

‘The results of this study confirm most cardiovascular events are preventable with sustained exposure to modestly lower combinations of LDL-C and blood pressure,’ the researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

‘Indeed, the results suggest prolonged exposure to even very modest lifetime reductions can substantially reduce the lifetime risk of cardiovascular events.’

They hope their study will enable those who are genetically at-risk of heart disease to be better cared for.

‘We now plan to take the results to create a lifetime cardiovascular risk calculator and to support the development of new prevention guidelines,’ Professor Ference said. 

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, which part funded the study, added: ‘This research again demonstrates high blood pressure and raised cholesterol are key risk factors for heart attacks and strokes. 

‘But how many of us know our numbers for these or have made sustained efforts to lower them? Hopefully, the findings reported today can act as a motivator for long-term change.

‘Millions of people are living with untreated high blood pressure or raised cholesterol, both of which can be lowered with lifestyle changes and medication. 

‘Huge numbers of heart attacks and strokes can be prevented simply by getting to know your numbers and taking your health into your own hands.

‘Everyone between 40 and 74 is eligible for a free NHS health check, which assesses your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases, and includes cholesterol and a blood pressure reading. It’s important we all take advantage of this.’ 

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