Doc Talk: What you should know about high blood pressure

01/17/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:08 AM

Nearly one-third of people older than 20 in the United States have high blood pressure, and many of them do not know it.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is called a “silent killer” because it usually does not present symptoms for many years. By that time, a vital organ such as the heart or kidneys may be damaged or a stroke may have occurred.

Blood pressure refers to the pressure exerted on the arteries as the heart pumps blood through them. When your blood pressure is measured, two numbers are recorded. The higher one measures the pressure when the heart contracts (systole), and the lower measures pressure when the heart relaxes between beats (diastole).

A normal blood pressure reading is 120/80. Blood pressure can be affected by many things, such as illness, excitement or stress. It’s perfectly normal for the heart rate and blood pressure to rise when we exercise in order to increase the blood flow to the body. However, blood pressure that is consistently high when the individual is at rest and not agitated is hypertension.

In most adults, a systolic reading of 121 to 140 is considered prehypertension and anything above 140 is high. A diastolic reading of 80 to 90 is prehypertension, and a number over 90 is high. Prehypertension also can be a danger and should be addressed.

You may have heard of “white-coat hypertension,” which is caused by nervousness when you are in the doctor’s office. If a visit to the doctor’s office affects your blood pressure that much, then many other situations probably do, too, and your blood pressure needs to be addressed. The best way to learn about your blood pressure is to buy a blood pressure cuff at any drugstore and measure your pressure several times a day for a week. You also can use the blood pressure cuff available at most pharmacies.

Causes and treatments

Previously, high blood pressure rarely occurred before the age of 40 or 50. Now physicians are seeing hypertension in many younger individuals. The reason is a change in lifestyle. Instead of doing physical work on a farm, we are more likely to work at a desk. Another factor is a change in diet. Instead of home-cooked meals of fresh foods, we tend to eat more processed foods containing fats, sugars and salt.

The good news is that regular exercise and a change in diet can improve blood pressure – as well as lower weight and decrease the likelihood of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. We may get tired of hearing it, but fresh vegetables and fruits are good for us. Some foods, such as bananas, even contain nutrients such as potassium that may help lower blood pressure. Exercising about 30 minutes several times per week helps keep the heart and blood vessels working more efficiently.

If a change in diet and exercise is not effective enough, medications also are available to reduce blood pressure. Medication may have side effects, but your doctor can usually help you find one that works for you.

Most of us tend to ignore things that don’t seem to be a problem. However, finding out what your blood pressure normally is and taking steps to improve it can be a lifesaver.

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