Beta-blockers for hypertension

What is the aim of this review?

The aim of this Cochrane Review was to assess whether beta-blockers decrease the number of deaths, strokes, and heart attacks associated with high blood pressure in adults. We collected and analysed all relevant studies to answer this question and found 13 relevant studies.

Are beta-blockers as good as other medicines when used for treatment of adults with high blood pressure?

Beta-blockers were not as good at preventing the number of deaths, strokes, and heart attacks as other classes of medicines such as diuretics, calcium-channel blockers, and renin-angiotensin system inhibitors. Most of these findings come from one type of beta-blocker called atenolol. However, beta-blockers are a diverse group of medicines with different properties, and we need more well-conducted research in this area.

What was studied in the review?

Millions of people with high blood pressure have strokes, heart attacks, and other diseases, and many of them die. This situation could be prevented with appropriate treatment. Researchers have tried different medicines for treating high blood pressure.

What are the main results of the review?

We found 13 studies from high-income countries, mainly Western Europe and North America. In the studies, the people receiving beta-blockers were compared to people who received no treatment or other medicines. The studies showed the following.

Beta-blockers probably make little or no difference in the number of deaths among people on treatment for high blood pressure. This effect appears to be similar to that of diuretics and renin-angiotensin system inhibitors, but beta-blockers are probably not as good at preventing deaths from high blood pressure as calcium-channel blockers.

Beta-blockers may reduce the number of strokes, an effect which appears to be similar to that of diuretics. However, beta-blockers may not be as good at preventing strokes as renin-angiotensin system inhibitors or calcium-channel blockers.

Beta-blockers may make little or no difference to the number of heart attacks among people with high blood pressure. The evidence suggests that this effect may not be different from that of diuretics, renin-angiotensin system inhibitors, or calcium-channel blockers. However, among people aged 65 years and older, the evidence suggests that beta-blockers may not be as good at reducing heart attacks as diuretics.

People given beta-blockers are more likely to have side effects and stop treatment than people taking renin-angiotensin system inhibitors, but there may be little or no difference in side effects between beta-blockers and diuretics or calcium-channel blockers.

How up-to-date is this review?

The review authors searched for studies that had been published up to June 2016.

Authors' conclusions: 

Most outcome RCTs on beta-blockers as initial therapy for hypertension have high risk of bias. Atenolol was the beta-blocker most used. Current evidence suggests that initiating treatment of hypertension with beta-blockers leads to modest CVD reductions and little or no effects on mortality. These beta-blocker effects are inferior to those of other antihypertensive drugs. Further research should be of high quality and should explore whether there are differences between different subtypes of beta-blockers or whether beta-blockers have differential effects on younger and older people.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Beta-blockers refer to a mixed group of drugs with diverse pharmacodynamic and pharmacokinetic properties. They have shown long-term beneficial effects on mortality and cardiovascular disease (CVD) when used in people with heart failure or acute myocardial infarction. Beta-blockers were thought to have similar beneficial effects when used as first-line therapy for hypertension. However, the benefit of beta-blockers as first-line therapy for hypertension without compelling indications is controversial. This review is an update of a Cochrane Review initially published in 2007 and updated in 2012.

Objectives: 

To assess the effects of beta-blockers on morbidity and mortality endpoints in adults with hypertension.

Search strategy: 

The Cochrane Hypertension Information Specialist searched the following databases for randomized controlled trials up to June 2016: the Cochrane Hypertension Specialised Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (2016, Issue 6), MEDLINE (from 1946), Embase (from 1974), and ClinicalTrials.gov. We checked reference lists of relevant reviews, and reference lists of studies potentially eligible for inclusion in this review, and also searched the the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform on 06 July 2015.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of at least one year of duration, which assessed the effects of beta-blockers compared to placebo or other drugs, as first-line therapy for hypertension, on mortality and morbidity in adults.

Data collection and analysis: 

We selected studies and extracted data in duplicate, resolving discrepancies by consensus. We expressed study results as risk ratios (RR) with 95% confidence intervals (CI) and conducted fixed-effect or random-effects meta-analyses, as appropriate. We also used GRADE to assess the certainty of the evidence. GRADE classifies the certainty of evidence as high (if we are confident that the true effect lies close to that of the estimate of effect), moderate (if the true effect is likely to be close to the estimate of effect), low (if the true effect may be substantially different from the estimate of effect), and very low (if we are very uncertain about the estimate of effect).

Main results: 

Thirteen RCTs met inclusion criteria. They compared beta-blockers to placebo (4 RCTs, 23,613 participants), diuretics (5 RCTs, 18,241 participants), calcium-channel blockers (CCBs: 4 RCTs, 44,825 participants), and renin-angiotensin system (RAS) inhibitors (3 RCTs, 10,828 participants). These RCTs were conducted between the 1970s and 2000s and most of them had a high risk of bias resulting from limitations in study design, conduct, and data analysis. There were 40,245 participants taking beta-blockers, three-quarters of them taking atenolol. We found no outcome trials involving the newer vasodilating beta-blockers (e.g. nebivolol).

There was no difference in all-cause mortality between beta-blockers and placebo (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.88 to 1.11), diuretics or RAS inhibitors, but it was higher for beta-blockers compared to CCBs (RR 1.07, 95% CI 1.00 to 1.14). The evidence on mortality was of moderate-certainty for all comparisons.

Total CVD was lower for beta-blockers compared to placebo (RR 0.88, 95% CI 0.79 to 0.97; low-certainty evidence), a reflection of the decrease in stroke (RR 0.80, 95% CI 0.66 to 0.96; low-certainty evidence) since there was no difference in coronary heart disease (CHD: RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.81 to 1.07; moderate-certainty evidence). The effect of beta-blockers on CVD was worse than that of CCBs (RR 1.18, 95% CI 1.08 to 1.29; moderate-certainty evidence), but was not different from that of diuretics (moderate-certainty) or RAS inhibitors (low-certainty). In addition, there was an increase in stroke in beta-blockers compared to CCBs (RR 1.24, 95% CI 1.11 to 1.40; moderate-certainty evidence) and RAS inhibitors (RR 1.30, 95% CI 1.11 to 1.53; moderate-certainty evidence). However, there was little or no difference in CHD between beta-blockers and diuretics (low-certainty evidence), CCBs (moderate-certainty evidence) or RAS inhibitors (low-certainty evidence). In the single trial involving participants aged 65 years and older, atenolol was associated with an increased CHD incidence compared to diuretics (RR 1.63, 95% CI 1.15 to 2.32). Participants taking beta-blockers were more likely to discontinue treatment due to adverse events than participants taking RAS inhibitors (RR 1.41, 95% CI 1.29 to 1.54; moderate-certainty evidence), but there was little or no difference with placebo, diuretics or CCBs (low-certainty evidence).

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