If you ask most people how much they weigh, they may be reluctant to share — but chances are they can easily recall what the scale showed the last few times they stepped on it. Ask that same group of people their blood pressure, and they’ll probably have a harder time answering.
While many of us vigilantly monitor fluctuations in our weight, we’re less likely to be aware of our blood pressure and the significance of having it checked. Knowing your numbers is important because high blood pressure, or hypertension, can quietly damage your body for years before symptoms develop. Left uncontrolled, hypertension can lead to a heart attack, stroke, degenerative artery disease, kidney disease and eye damage.
Before you reach this point, check your blood pressure with your doctor. If it is within a healthy range, your doctor can help it stay that way, and if you need to decrease it, your physician can work with you to develop a plan.
“High blood pressure is not a physical ailment, like a headache,” says David Liu, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center in Hillcrest. “It’s a measurement, like height or weight. Most people do not feel anything if they have high blood pressure, and the damage to the blood vessels accumulates over time — quietly. That’s why blood pressure is often called ‘the silent killer.’”
Blood pressure is the amount of force the blood puts on the walls of the arteries. If you have high blood pressure, your heart is working harder than normal, straining your heart and arteries. Two numbers, the systolic and the diastolic, tell the story.
The first and higher of the two numbers is the systolic pressure, which measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. The bottom and lower number measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats, when the heart is resting.
For adults under the age of 60, the Eighth Joint National Committee Guidelines, published in 2013 in the Journal of American Medicine, indicate that a healthy blood pressure is in the range from 120 over 90 (120/90) to 140 over 90 (140/90).
According to the American Heart Association, nearly one in three adults have high blood pressure, but only 53 percent of those have their condition under control.
While certain risk factors, such as age, family history and gender, cannot be changed, you can reduce your blood pressure with lifestyle changes.
- If you smoke, stop.
Reduce salt in your diet.
Salt lurks in many popular foods besides potato chips and French fries. Cut back on bread, cold cuts, pizza, sodium-laden soups and fast-food sandwiches, which can contain more than 100 percent of your daily suggested dietary sodium.
“Decreasing the salt you eat is one of the quickest ways to lower your blood pressure,” says David Miller, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic in Rancho Bernardo. “Even a small reduction in the sodium in your diet can reduce blood pressure.”
Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Include potassium-rich foods, such as bananas, peas, leafy greens, grapes and oranges, since this simple mineral lessens the effects of sodium.
- Limit alcohol.
Lose any extra pounds.
Even 10 pounds can make a difference and help reduce your blood pressure. Talk with your doctor about your target weight and the best way to get there.
It’s better to exercise 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week, rather than trying to cram in workouts during the weekends.
Manage your stress.
Most people can’t eliminate all the stress in life, but everyone can learn how to cope with it in healthy ways. Take 10 minutes out of your day to relax and recharge. Listen to music, work in the garden, or play with a pet.
“While the damage from hypertension is irreversible, controlling blood pressure and keeping it within a healthy range can keep any more damage from occurring” says Dr. Miller.
If these changes don’t lower your blood pressure enough, there are a wide range of blood pressure medications available, including ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers and thiazide diuretics. Your doctor will work with you to determine if you need to take a medication and what type would work best.