One in three Americans has hypertension, or high blood pressure, and more than 80 percent don’t know it, according to the American Heart Association. Hypertension occurs when the blood in your arteries pushes harder against the artery walls than it should. Over time, this pressure damages the walls and causes scarring that promotes the creation of fatty plaques; these can build up and block blood flow.
Despite the fact that high blood pressure is so common (it’s the leading cause of stroke and a major contributor to heart disease) most people know little about it. Here, surprising facts you should know about hypertension.
1. You control your risk.
Hypertension is usually caused by a combination of genetics, lifestyle, and an unhealthy diet. Being overweight, smoking, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and a high-stress life all increase your risk. But you’re in control of almost every risk factor.
2. It’s not just a problem for old people.
You should have your blood pressure checked every year or two during your physical. As a walk-in-clinic physician, I see lots of women age 20 to 50 who haven’t had their blood pressure checked in ages, if ever. Yet a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 20 percent of young adults developed “pre-hypertension” by age 35. Because hypertension usually has no symptoms, I regularly reveal high readings to unsuspecting women. It takes several readings over time to diagnose, so if your pressure is high, your doctor may ask you to come in the next day for follow-up. (If it is extremely high and you have symptoms such as a headache or dizziness, you may be sent to the emergency room). You can check your blood pressure at drugstore machines. However, some research shows that the machines can be unreliable, so get checked regularly by your doctor as well.
3. Aim low and avoid “pre-hypertension.”
A 43-year-old friend was recently told by her doctor that her blood pressure of 138/88 was nothing to worry about. I nearly had a stroke when she told me that! The difference between this number and the official “high” BP watermark of 140/90 is so tiny that this person, in my books, has hypertension. Some experts consider any BP between 120/80 and 140/90 to be “pre-hypertension,” and I agree. Ideally we should all stay below 120/80. Anyone in the “pre-hypertension” range needs to take action to reduce their risk and stress.
4. Taking the birth control pill has risks.
The progesterone component of the oral contraceptive pill can elevate blood pressure, especially if you have risk factors or a family history. I measure blood pressure before starting someone on the pill, check again after three months, and then check every time the prescription is renewed. On several occasions I’ve had women come into the clinic for prescription renewals who told me they hadn’t had their BP checked in years, and then I discovered it was sky-high. Any woman who has high BP should avoid being on the pill until the cause of hypertension is under control.
5. Breathe deep for happier arteries.
I recommend taking “breathing breaks,” which can mean meditation with deep breathing in the morning and/or evening, or just remembering to breathe deeply when stressed. A study in Hypertension Research found that six deep breaths over 30 seconds significantly lowered BP. Several studies have also found that yoga reduces blood pressure in hypertensive people. If your doctor tells you your BP numbers are creeping up into the danger range, consider it your wake-up call to make those all-important lifestyle changes.
Tips to Keep Blood Pressure in Check
• Limit salt and sodium. Be sure to read package labels and choose those with five percent or less of the daily value for sodium.
• Choose low-fat dairy. A study in the journal Hypertension found that lower-fat dairy such as yogurt, milk, or cheese may help women who are age 45 and older reduce their risk of high blood pressure.
• Get regular exercise (walking counts!) Aim for 30 to 60 minutes on most days of the week.
November/December 2014 issue of Best Health magazine