High blood pressure isn’t like a toothache, a bruise, or constipation. Nothing hurts, looks discolored, or fails to work. Usually, people with high blood pressure experience no discomfort or outward signs of trouble. Yet high blood pressure (hypertension) is a killer, a silent killer. Directly or indirectly, high blood pressure accounts for nearly a million deaths a year. Uncontrolled, high blood pressure increases the odds that you’ll have a heart attack, a stroke, or kidney failure or loss of vision.
High blood pressure happens when your blood moves through your arteries at a higher pressure than normal. The heart is actually straining to pump blood through the arteries. This isn’t healthy because:
- It promotes hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Hardened, narrowed arteries may not be able to carry the amount of blood the body’s organs need.
- Blood clots can form or lodge in a narrowed artery. (This could cause a stroke or heart attack).
- The heart can become enlarged. (This could result in congestive heart failure).
More than half of all older adults have high blood pressure. About fifty percent of all people who have it don’t know it. Worse yet, many people who know their blood pressure is dangerously high are doing nothing to try to control it. And for 90 percent of those affected, there is no known cause. When this is the case, it is called primary or essential hypertension. When high blood pressure results from another medical disorder or a medicine it is referred to as secondary hypertension. In these cases (about 10% of total), when the root cause is corrected, blood pressure usually goes back to normal.
How’s your blood pressure? Blood pressure is normally measured with a blood pressure cuff placed on the arm. The numbers on the gauge measure your blood pressure in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The first (higher) number measures the systolic pressure. This is the maximum pressure exerted against the arterial walls while the heart is beating. The second (lower) number records the diastolic pressure, the pressure between heart beats, when the heart is resting. The results are then recorded as systolic/diastolic pressure (120/80 mmHg, for example). Blood pressure is considered high in adults if it is consistently a reading of 140 mmHg systolic and/or 90 mmHg diastolic or higher.
To accurately determine your blood pressure, an average of two or more readings should be taken on two or more separate occasions. If your blood pressure is generally pretty good and suddenly registers high, don’t be alarmed. Anxiety and other strong emotions, physical exertion, drinking a large amount of coffee, or digesting a recently consumed meal can temporarily elevate normal blood pressure with no lasting effects. If, after several readings, your doctor is convinced you do indeed have high blood pressure, follow his or her advice. The risk of stroke, heart attack, and kidney disease increases when blood pressure is in the mild to severe range.
Treatment and Care
The amazing part is, blood pressure is one of the easiest health problems to control. Here’s a multi-point plan to control high blood pressure:
- If you’re overweight, lose weight.
- Don’t smoke.
- Limit alcohol to two drinks or less a day.
- Reduce your salt intake. (This is helpful for many people). Use salt substitutes if your physician says it’s okay.
- Get regular exercise at least three times a week.
- Learn to handle stress by practicing relaxation techniques and rethinking stressful situations.
- Take any prescribed blood pressure medicine as directed. Don’t skip your pills because you feel fine or because you don’t like the side effects. Tell your doctor if you have any side effects of the medicine such as dizziness, faintness, skin rash, or even a dry cough in the absence of a cold. Another medicine can be prescribed.
- Talk to your physician or pharmacist before you take antihistamines and decongestants. An ingredient in some of these can raise your blood pressure.
- Don’t eat black licorice.
Healthy Self: The Guide to Self-Care and Wise Consumerism
© American Institute for Preventive Medicine