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BACKGROUND: High-risk strategies for the prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) among hypertensive patients require knowledge of the prevalence and interaction of modifiable risk factors to ensure effective targeting of interventions. Comparatively little is known of risk-factor profiles and their modification among hypertensives in primary care. AIM: The present study was designed to explore relationships between patients' knowledge of CVD risk factors, their perception of personal risk and health behaviours, and their use of lifestyle interventions. METHOD: A cross-sectional survey of 2676 men and women with mild to moderate hypertension (diastolic blood pressure 95-115 mmHg), and their general practitioners, recruited from 1044 general practices throughout the UK, was conducted. RESULTS: Levels of modifiable risk factors were high, although there was considerable variation by age and sex; most (98.5%) patients had at least one additional CVD risk factor. A lower standard of living was associated with a higher prevalence of 'unhealthy' behaviours. Out of those with a current lifestyle problem, 85% of obese patients, 59% of smokers, 47% of excess drinkers, 49% of those with dietary risk factors and 32% of inactive patients claimed to have adopted healthier behaviours within the past 3 months. Older subjects and those with a lower standard of living were less likely to acknowledge risks, and those who did were less likely to report improving their lifestyles. While 71% of patients recalled receiving lifestyle advice, the coverage and targeting of specific interventions was generally poor. Overall, 60% of the sample had received advice on weight control, 47% on diet, 38% on exercise, 38% on smoking and 36% on alcohol. Women and older people were less likely to be given relevant counseling, and there was no evidence of targeting with respect to subjects' social class, level of hypertension or duration of diagnosis. CONCLUSION: Lifestyle interventions are welcomed and are viewed as helpful by patients receiving them. Potential health gains among high-risk hypertensives are being lost because of poor targeting and coverage of those at greatest risk.