Federal researchers stopped a large clinical investigation a year in advance Friday saying they had lifesaving information for people over 50: When it comes to blood pressure, lower is better, the research team said.

The landmark investigation of 9,300 men and women at high risk of heart disease calls for more intensive management of blood pressure. Doctors should help patients reduce blood pressure to levels far below those recommended only a few years ago, researchers said.

Investigators now recommend maintaining a systolic blood pressure of 120. The systolic number is the numerator -- the higher number -- in a blood pressure reading. Earlier, guidelines had suggested a systolic pressure of 140 for healthy adults and 130 for those with diabetes.

The research was conducted by scientists at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Researchers concluded that lower pressures will help further reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease.

High blood pressure -- hypertension -- is a leading risk factor for heart disorders, stroke and kidney failure. An estimated 1 in 3 people in the United States has high blood pressure, according to institute scientists.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Dr. Richard Shlofmitz, chairman of cardiology at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill, applauded the investigation, saying hypertension is a well-known silent killer.

"High blood pressure has several manifestations with respect to heart disease," Shlofmitz said. "It has been shown that sustained hypertension over time -- not just a single episode of an elevated reading -- will cause a thickening of the arteries and increase the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke."

Shlofmitz added that as people age, the arteries naturally stiffen, but hypertension can exacerbate the problem.

The research project that was stopped early is known as the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial.

In the study, when systolic pressure was maintained at 120, the rate of major cardiovascular events -- heart attack, stroke and heart failure -- was reduced by one-third. Control of systolic pressure additionally cut the risk of death from these causes by 25 percent.

@Newsday

"This study provides potentially lifesaving information that will be useful to health care providers as they consider the best treatment options for some of their patients, particularly those over the age of 50," Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute said in a statement.

Dr. Lawrence Fine, chief of clinical applications and prevention at the institute, said "the results provide important evidence that treating blood pressure to a lower goal in older or high-risk patients can be beneficial."