Like a vampire, high blood pressure can be silent and destructive, yet manageable. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, means the pressure on the walls of your arteries is high. Think of what happens to a garden hose with prolonged high pressure. The hose gets stiff, cracks, and leaks. Or explodes, which is what can happen with a stroke. Over time, the high pressure damages the elasticity of the blood vessels, so the pressure increases and the heart has to pump harder, leading to a cascade of risks for bad medical events as you age.
In general, normal, healthy blood pressure is lower than 120/80 (with both numbers lower). The first number (systolic) is the pressure when your heart beats. The second number (diastolic) is the pressure when the heart rests between beats. Blood pressures that are usually between 120/80 and 140/90 are considered “prehypertension” – a warning that now is a good time to bring that pressure down. A consistent blood pressure at or above 140/90 is high and may need both lifestyle changes and medications to bring the pressure down. People with other health conditions, such as diabetes, may need to aim for lower blood pressures.
About one in three adults have high blood pressure. As we age, more of us develop it. Your kidneys, hormones, nervous system, blood vessels, and water and salt in your body all influence your blood pressure. Having a relative with high blood pressure, being overweight, no physical activity, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol raise your risks of hypertension. Diabetes, gout, and kidney disease also raise your high blood pressure risks. Foods high in sodium, like just about anything canned and any frozen entrees, increase your blood pressure. Reading the sodium content on food labels is usually shocking.
The good news is that the medications for high blood pressure work well, once you and your health care provider have the right medication and dose figured out. Fresh fruits and vegetables, low fat diet, drinking in moderation and regular physical activity can help lower your blood pressure or prevent it from rising. Exercise and healthy eating can make a big difference. Even a small weight loss can bring the numbers down.
It helps to keep a record of your blood pressures and bring it to your medical appointments. That way your health care provider can see what your blood pressure has been in your daily life, not just when you are in his or her office. You can purchase a home blood pressure monitor at drugstores and medical supply stores. You can also get it checked at most firehouses and drugstores. Think of it as akin to a speedometer that tells you how you are doing.