For most people one of the most stress inducing things that happens in any doctor’s office is the taking of blood pressure. You can tell yourself to relax, breathe easy and envision yourself on a beach, but the truth of the matter is you are at a doctor’s appointment for one reason or another having your health evaluated. What is the most concerning is that a lot of people aren’t exactly sure what the numbers mean or where they come from. In this article we will be going over how to understand blood pressure readings, why it matters, understanding your risks, and new research on how to lower that high blood pressure and improve quality of life.
Understanding High Blood Pressure
Blood Pressure– is a ratio of systolic over diastolic and is measured in millimeters of mercury, mmHg.
Systolic– is the top number of the ratio and is the higher of the two. It measures the pressure of the body’s arteries when the heart muscle contracts.
Diastolic– is the bottom number of the ratio and is the lower of the two. It measures the pressure of the body’s arteries between heartbeats, aka contractions, so this is when the heart muscle is relaxed.
The systolic, or top number is the more important of the two and usually slowly increases with age after 50, due to stiffness of arteries, plaque buildup etc.
Blood Pressure Chart
(taken from American Heart Association website heart.org)
Blood pressure should be taken at least once every two years, even if it is around normal, and more frequently if it is higher. The numbers change in a person minute to minute due to the time of day, exercise, stress, lack of sleep, posture, and the food one has eaten! If your blood pressure is higher than desired, your doctor might monitor it on a consistent basis and/or have you keep track of it frequently at home. Even if your blood pressure is normal, it is always a good idea to develop healthy lifestyle habits to help prevent high blood pressure (HBP).
High blood pressure is known as “the silent killer” because there can be no signs or symptoms of it. If untreated, consequences of HBP (but not symptoms) may include:
- damage to the heart and coronary arteries
- kidney damage
- vision loss and damage
- memory loss
- fluid in the lungs
- peripheral artery disease
Risk factors that can contribute to hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, include:
- family history
- advanced age
- lack of physical activity
- poor diet, especially one that includes too much salt
- being overweight or obese
- drinking too much alcohol (binge drinking, ie 3-5 alcoholic drinks in one sitting)
Contributing factors to high blood pressure include:
- smoking and secondhand smoke
- sleep apnea
Recent research from the National Institutes of Health has shown that being more aggressive in the treatment of high blood pressure, can significantly lower a person’s rate of cardiovascular disease. Until recently, it was recommended by the American Heart Association that the systolic pressure should be less than 140 mmHg for most adults to be out of the high blood pressure or hypertension category. This new research found that decreasing the systolic number to 120 mmHg and below reduces the risk of death of cardiovascular disease by 43%.
In 2013, 360,000 deaths were associated with or directly related to high blood pressure. About 80 million, or one in three American adults have HBP which puts them at a much higher risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and other serious health problems.New research from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, found that patients age 75 and older benefited even more from this lowering of the systolic blood pressure than the younger age group. However, one unfortunate side effect in some patients in the aggressively treated group with medication, is acute kidney failure. Even with the immediate push for a lowering of the systolic BP, experts all agree that the best way to go about it is a thorough lifestyle change and not rely on drugs alone.
Here are a few lifestyle interventions to aid in the process of lowering HBP and keeping it within the goal range of systolic 120 mmHg or below:
- HBP Medication
- Weight Reduction
- Exercise (2.5 hours per week of moderate exercise: jogging, swimming, walking etc.)
- Reduce salt intake (only 3 or 4 grams per day)
- Eat more fruits and vegetables (4-6 servings per day)
- Snack on dark chocolate (antioxidants in cocoa, called flavanols, can help dilate arteries)
- Reduce alcohol intake (maximum drinks per day:one for women and two for men)
The US National Institutes of Health has created what is known as the DASH diet plan (dashdiet.org) in order to lower blood pressure without medication, and also subsequently aid in weight loss. Through copious amounts of research, DASH is a strict eating plan that is rich in vegetables and fruit, low-fat and nonfat dairy products, along with beans, nuts, and seeds. The snacks and meals are balanced with both fiber filled foods (fruits and vegetables) along with food that is protein-rich and/or contain heart healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, fatty fish) that aid in offsetting hunger. A decrease in high blood pressure was achieved by decreasing the amount of “empty carbs” (pasta, bread, rice, sweets, ice cream, candy etc.) consumed and replacing them with heart healthy fats and/or protein. By doing so, the diet provides more key nutrients which includes: potassium, calcium, and magnesium, which all contribute naturally to lowering blood pressure.
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/AboutHighBloodPressure/Understanding-Blood-Pressure-Readings_UCM_301764_Article.jsp#.Vs3IevkrLIU “No-Smoking Confidence Assessment and Tips.” Understanding Blood Pressure Readings. American HEart Association. N.p., 18 Dec. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
“Why Blood Pressure Matters.” Why Blood Pressure Matters. American Heart Association. N.p., 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
“Understand Your Risk for High Blood Pressure.” Understand Your Risk for High Blood Pressure. American Heart Association, 18 Dec. 2015. Web. 02 Mar. 2016.
“More Aggressive Treatment of High Blood Pressure Saves Lives in Study – News on Heart.org.” News on Heartorg. American Heart Association, 09 Nov. 2015. Web. 02 Mar. 2016.
Goldschmidt, Debra, and Carina Storrs. “High Blood Pressure Control Improving; What Else to Do.” CNN. Cable News Network, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
Heller, Marla. “What Is the DASH Diet?” What Is the DASH Diet? N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2016.