Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries. When the doctor measures your blood pressure, the results are given in two numbers. The first number, called systolic blood pressure, is the pressure caused by your heart pushing out blood. The second number, called diastolic blood pressure is the pressure when your heart fills with blood. The safest range, often called normal blood pressure, is a Systolic blood pressure of less than 120 and a diastolic blood pressure of less than 80. This is stated as 120/80. When your numbers are higher than 140/90, you are said to have “high blood pressure.” The medical name for high blood pressure is hypertension.
You can have high blood pressure and still feel just fine. That’s because high blood pressure often does not cause signs of illness that you can see or feel. This is why high blood pressure is often referred to as “the silent killer.” According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 67 million American adults have high blood pressure—that’s 1of every 3 adults or 31%!
In addition, nearly 1 of 3 American adults has prehypertension—blood pressure numbers that are higher than normal, but not yet in the high blood pressure range. For example, the first number (systolic) is between 120 and 139, or the second number (diastolic) is between 80 and 89. Prehypertension can put you at risk for developing high blood pressure.
If high blood pressure isn’t controlled with lifestyle changes and medicine, it can lead to stroke, heart disease, eye problems, kidney failure, and other health problems. High blood pressure can also cause shortness of breath during light physical activity or exercise.
Not surprisingly, high blood pressure is costly at an estimated $47.5 billion each year. This total includes the cost of health care services, medications to treat high blood pressure, and missed days of work.
Are You at Risk?
Anyone can get high blood pressure. But, some people have a greater chance of having it because of things they can’t change. These are:
- Age. The chance of having high blood pressure increases as you get older. For men the age where risk increases is 55; for women it is 65.
- Gender. Before age 55, men have a greater chance of having high blood pressure. Women are more likely to have high blood pressure after menopause.
- Family history. High blood pressure tends to run in some families.
- Race. African-Americans are at increased risk for high blood pressure.
How to Lower Your Risk
Although you can’t stop aging and don’t have any control over your gender, family history or race, the good news is that you can dramatically lower your risk of developing high blood pressure with your lifestyle choices.
Body weight. As you might imagine, keeping a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to lower your risk of developing high blood pressure. According to the National Institute of Health, being overweight dramatically adds to your risk of high blood pressure. Studies have shown that as your body weight increases, your blood pressure rises. The good news is that losing just 10 pounds can lower ones’ blood pressure. For those who are overweight and have already developed hypertension, losing weight will have the greatest influence on lowering blood pressure.
Exercise every day. Moderate exercise has shown to lower your risk of high blood pressure. See Chapter 1 for information regarding a safe, comprehensive exercise program.
Eat a healthy diet. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products may help to lower blood pressure. In the medical world, people who have hypertension are encouraged to follow a DASH eating plan. DASH stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.” DASH foods are low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol, and high in fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy foods. The DASH eating plan includes whole grains, poultry, fish, and nuts, and has low amounts of fats, red meats, sweets, and sugared beverages. It is also high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, as well as protein and fiber.
The DASH eating plan has more daily servings of fruits, vegetables, and grains than you may be used to eating. Those foods are high in fiber, and eating more of them may temporarily cause bloating and changes in your elimination patterns. To get used to the DASH eating plan, gradually increase your servings of fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Cut down on salt. Many Americans eat more salt (sodium) than they need. Most Americans should consume no more than 2.4 grams (2,400 milligrams) of sodium a day. That equals 6 grams (about 1 teaspoon) of table salt a day. Most of the salt comes from processed food (for example, soup and baked goods). When diagnosed with high blood pressure doctors will often prescribe a low-sodium diet. By following a low-sodium diet now, you will be helping to prevent the onset of high blood pressure.
There are many ways in which you can make food flavorful without adding sodium. Here are some suggestions:
- Buy fresh, plain frozen, or canned “with no salt added” vegetables.
- Use fresh poultry, fish, and lean meat, rather than canned or processed types.
- Use herbs, spices, and salt-free seasoning blends in cooking and at the table. Before trying salt substitutes, you should check with your doctor, especially if you have high blood pressure. These contain potassium chloride and may be harmful for those with certain medical conditions.
- Cook rice, pasta, and hot cereal without salt. Cut back on instant or flavored rice, pasta, and cereal mixes, which usually have added salt.
- Choose “convenience” foods that are low in sodium. Cut back on frozen dinners, pizza, packaged mixes, canned soups or broths, and salad dressings—these often have a lot of sodium.
- Rinse canned foods, such as tuna, to remove some sodium.
- When available, buy low- or reduced-sodium or no-salt-added versions of foods. Become a label reader to ensure you are making good selections.
- Choose ready-to-eat breakfast cereals that are low in sodium.
Drink less alcohol. Drinking alcohol can affect your blood pressure. It also can harm the liver, brain, and heart. Alcoholic drinks also contain calories, which matters if you are trying to lose weight. Medical professionals agree that most men should not have more than two drinks a day; most women should not have more than one drink a day. What counts as a drink?
- 12 ounces of beer (regular or light, 150 calories),
- 5 ounces of wine (100 calories), or;
- 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof whiskey (100 calories).
Don’t smoke. Smoking increases your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and other health problems. If you smoke, quit.
Get a good night’s sleep. Tell your doctor if you’ve been told you snore or sound like you stop breathing for moments when you sleep. This may be a sign of a problem called sleep apnea. Treating sleep apnea and getting a good night’s sleep can help to lower blood pressure.
The Good News
High blood pressure is serious because it can lead to major health problems but the good news is that through healthy lifestyle habits you can not only prevent high blood pressure but millions of people who are diagnosed can successfully bring their blood pressure down into a normal range with those same healthy lifestyle habits. By following the guidelines outlined in this chapter you will be on your way to better health and normal blood pressure levels.