When his dad was diagnosed with diabetes, Raymond Townsend got busy taking care of him – even though he was only 10 years old.

Townsend, already a science lover who had a chemistry set and dreams of someday inventing something important, was eager to help.

“It was the 1960s, so you couldn’t buy disposable syringes and you had to have insulin on hand at all times,” Townsend recalled. “I was the one who went down to put the water on to sterilize the syringe, plunger and the needle. I’d boil the glass syringe in a strainer positioned in a pot of boiling water for five minutes and set a timer on the stove.”

Years later, as a college student, he drew Raymond Sr.’s blood at home and tested it at the medical lab where he worked. And decades after that, Townsend, M.D., was named American Heart Association physician of the year.

Townsend, now a professor of medicine and director of the Hypertension Program at the University of Pennsylvania, was honored by the AHA last month for his research in metabolism, hemodynamics and chronic kidney disease. He was also honored for his commitment to raising awareness in his hometown of Philadelphia about the importance of understanding and treating high blood pressure.

“Many people think we conquered blood pressure years ago, but we have a growing number of people who are dealing with it,” Townsend said, “It’s the leading risk factor for death — more than tobacco, and more than unsafe sex.”

Here’s how he describes its toll: If you’re 50 and have uncontrolled blood pressure, you’re more like a 70-year-old when it comes to your vessels.

“The thing that best predicts death is an older age — nothing beats it as a predictor of mortality,” he said. “Elevated blood pressure ages your circulation quicker, particularly when unrecognized or untreated. It makes you older faster. It wears the pipes out.”

In the early 1980s, when Townsend was chief resident of internal medicine at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, he developed a keen interest for understanding high blood pressure and what to do about it. He was inspired by a mentor, Donald DiPette, M.D., whom he described as “a quick mind who questioned everything.”

“It became my goal to do good science like he did and to submit research studies to American Heart Association meetings where I would find like-minded individuals,” he said.

Eventually he followed DiPette to Texas, where Townsend worked for five years at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston directing the school’s hypertension clinic. He got his first research grant from the AHA in 1992, the same year his dad died of colon cancer.

Townsend, his wife and their children moved back to Pennsylvania the following year to be with his mom, and so he could continue his blood pressure research and clinical care at Penn. He has been there since 1993.

Over the years Townsend has been committed to helping the AHA’s efforts to save and improve lives through scientific research.

Townsend has worked with numerous scientists and healthcare providers while volunteering for the AHA’s Council for High Blood Pressure Research, now called the Council on Hypertension. He organized the AHA’s scientific statement on arterial stiffness studies published last year in the medical journal Hypertension. Townsend also contributed to the Adult Hypertension Treatment Guidelines (JNC 8) for high blood pressure.

Townsend points out that developments for high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases have come a long way since he was a boy helping his dad.

Last year, empagliflozin was shown to prolong survival in Type 2 diabetics, the first diabetes drug to do so. And the landmark SPRINT study proved that lower is better when it comes to blood pressure.

And, overall, more awareness has helped doctors and patients understand what it takes to lower blood pressure.

“There is still the occasional person whose blood pressure we have difficulty controlling, but we’re working to make those numbers even smaller,” Townsend said.

Photo by Tim Sharp