High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects roughly one out of every three people in the United States. Outside the US, those numbers increase as often high blood pressure goes undiagnosed. More often than not, there are no real signs or symptoms which leave people with a potential problem they are unaware of. Many of us know that checking our blood pressure is essential, but why does it matter so much? Before we look at why let’s better understand what blood pressure is.
What Is Blood Pressure?
Blood travels through your body via the circulatory system. This circulatory system is like a highway for your blood with roads of varying sizes. Blood moves out of your large arteries and veins to and from your heart. From there, blood enters smaller capillaries that extend to all parts of your body from the top of your head to your furthest toe. Blood pressure is measured with two numbers. Your systolic pressure is measured when blood is leaving your heart and diastolic pressure, which is when your heart relaxes between beats.
Recently The American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) redefined what they considered to be high blood pressure by stating that normal blood pressure was 120/80 (systolic/diastolic) or below where in the past it was under 140-90. This change has caused a substantial increase over an already large number of hypertension sufferers. It also eliminated the term pre-hypertension.
The ups and downs of blood pressure
Fluctuations in blood pressure in the short term are normal and can be a factor of such things as stress, anxiety, level of activity, and more. It’s longer-term changes in overall blood pressure that should have you concerned. As stated above, high blood pressure can be a significant indicator of other health problems.
Several factors may cause a long term increase in blood pressure, including:
- family history
- weight (overweight or obese)
- level of activity
- poor diet
- high stress
This change in blood pressure is why it’s so important to stay on top of your numbers and notice and significant fluctuations.
Blood pressure categories, as defined by the new ACC/AHA guidelines, are as follows:
Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg;
Elevated: Systolic between 120-129 and diastolic less than 80;
Stage 1: Systolic between 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89;
Stage 2: Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 mm Hg;
Hypertensive crisis: Systolic over 180 and/or diastolic over 120, with patients needing prompt changes in medication if there are no other indications of problems, or immediate hospitalization if there are signs of organ damage.
Your doctors will know what to do for you based on the category you fall into. They may recommend that you change your diet or adopt a fitness routine. If you fall into Stage 1 or Stage 2, the doctor may require medication as you have high blood pressure. I fall into this category but not because I don’t eat properly or exercise but more so because of my family history. My father’s side of the family has a history fo heart issues, which is why I began to change my diet and include exercise as part of my daily routine many years ago.
Often people with high blood pressure will show no signs or symptoms. Some with early-onset hypertension may experience a dull headache, dizziness, or a nosebleed. Symptoms of dangerously high blood pressure may include severe headaches, nosebleeds, and shortness of breath. If this is the case, you need to seek immediate medical attention.
Weakening of Blood Vessels
Blood vessels that have been under the stress of constant pressure tend to lose their flexibility. These stretched blood vessels become more prone to aneurysms and strokes.
Your high blood pressure can also cause tiny tears in blood vessel walls. Scar tissue gets left behind in your veins and arteries, and plaque deposits can get caught in these tears and begin to build up. This plaque is referred to many times as cholesterol. As time goes by, more and more plaque builds up and restricts blood flow causing significant damage. When this plaque build-up occurs in the heart, it is referred to as a heart attack. The restriction of blood vessels and increased pressure causes the heart to work harder. A piece of plaque can also break off and travel in your bloodstream, causing a stroke.
Greater Risk of Blood Clots
Plaque buildup can also cause your blood to become trapped, much like water behind a dam. This can cause clots to form that can narrow or completely block a blood vessel increasing your chance of a heart attack or stroke.
Increased risk of other diseases
High blood pressure can lead to several other conditions and issues such as heart failure, heart attack, stroke, and kidney problems.
How to lower your high blood pressure
Regardless of where your numbers fall on the scale above, it is always best to lead a healthy lifestyle, including proper diet and exercise. You may be able to correct high blood pressure by only making some adjustments to how you are living your life. Other times it may require medication along with leading a healthy lifestyle.
Eat a healthy diet
Consume foods that are low in salt and high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Eat more fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Use reduced-fat milk and yogurt as well. Cut back on processed and fast foods. Eat smarter!
There is enough information available these days that inform us that smoking is bad for you. The packages themselves tell you they cause cancer, so that should be warning enough. Aside from the cardiovascular effects of smoking and the increased buildup of plaque in arteries, smoking will temporarily increase your blood pressure.
Maintain a healthy weight
Losing 10 pounds for someone who is overweight can make all the difference and reduce unwanted strain on your heart. Carrying around extra weight will make you work harder than you need to for everyday chores, thus causing your heart to work harder as well.
Everything in moderation
You’ve heard the saying everything in moderation? This applies to alcohol consumption, as well. It’s always best to eliminate alcohol if possible, but if you do feel the need for a beer now and then limit your consumption to 1-2 drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. According to the Mayo Clinic, “red wine, in moderation, has long been thought of as heart-healthy. The alcohol and certain substances in red wine called antioxidants may help prevent coronary artery disease, the condition that leads to heart attacks”.
Aim to exercise for 30 minutes a day minimum of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least 3-4 times per week. Combine this strenuous cardiovascular activity with strength training at least 2-3 times per week, as well. Cardiovascular exercises can include jogging, walking, jumping rope, swimming, bike riding, rowing, kickboxing, etc. Anything that elevates your heart rate and keeps it elevated.
If the lifestyle changes above aren’t enough to lower your blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe one or more medications to help you manage it. These medications may include beta-blockers, diuretics, ACE inhibitors, Angiotensin receptor blockers, and calcium channel blockers. I won’t bore you with the details of how each of these works, but your doctor can explain which is best for you. This is where your yearly physical becomes vitally important. These medications should be monitored regularly, and dosages adjusted when necessary.
Now that you know what blood pressure is and why it’s important, what will you do to ensure you are within the correct range and leading a heart-healthy life? Comment below and let me know your thoughts on heart health and high blood pressure.