By Barbara Pierce
Nearly half of adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure, says the American Heart Association. The tricky part is that a lot of us don’t know we have it because, even when our numbers are too high, we don’t feel any different.
That’s why it’s important for all of us, of all ages, to understand high blood pressure.
We asked physician Cynthia Jones, medical director of Mosaic Health Utica and board member of the American Heart Association of the Mohawk Valley, to discuss high blood pressure and hypertension.
1 — Why should I care about blood pressure?
“High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke,” said Jones. “Because it often has no symptoms, it’s known as ‘the silent killer.’”
The main way that high blood pressure causes harm is to increase the work of your heart and blood vessels, making them work harder and less efficiently. This can damage your blood vessels, making them weak, stiff or narrower, which can harm important organs of your body: your heart, kidneys, brain and eyes, she added.
If you don’t know you have high blood pressure, and don’t take steps to control it, in addition to a heart attack or a stroke, it can cause heart failure, kidney disease, loss of vision or sexual dysfunction.
2 — What is high blood pressure? What do those numbers mean?
“To survive and function properly, your tissues and organs need the oxygenated blood that your circulatory system carries throughout the body,” said Jones. When your heart beats, it creates pressure that pushes blood through a network of blood vessels, including arteries, veins and capillaries. This pressure — blood pressure — is the result of two forces: The first force (systolic pressure) occurs as blood pumps out of the heart into the arteries. The second force (diastolic pressure) is created as the heart rests between heart beats.
Over time, the force and friction of high blood pressure damages the delicate tissues inside the arteries. In turn, LDL (bad) cholesterol forms plaque along tiny tears in the artery walls, signifying the start of atherosclerosis.
The more the plaque and damage increases, the narrower (smaller) the insides of the arteries become — raising blood pressure and starting a vicious circle that further harms your arteries, heart and the rest of your body. This can ultimately lead to other conditions ranging from arrhythmia to heart attack and stroke, Jones added.
Your blood pressure reading has two numbers: systolic the top number, diastolic the bottom number.
Systolic is pressure on your arteries when your heart beats; diastolic is the pressure between beats. Your doctor considers both numbers to determine if you have high blood pressure and, if so, what treatment to use.
For a diagnosis of high blood pressure, you need to have elevated readings on at least two separate occasions. Elevated is when the systolic is over 140.
Factors that increase your risk of having high blood pressure include older age, genetics, being overweight, being inactive, high salt diet, too much alcohol.
3 — Things that may raise blood pressure
• The ingredients in many decongestants.
• Salt: The Heart Association recommends a maximum of 2,300 mg of salt per day, with the ideal being 1,500.
• Alcohol: Limit your intake to one drink per day for women, two for men.
• Hot tubs and saunas: People with high blood pressure should not move back and forth between cold water and hot tubs or saunas as this can cause an increase in blood pressure.
• Weight gain: Losing as little as 10 pounds can lead to increased health benefits. Being overweight is one of the main causes of high blood pressure.
• Sitting: Even a few minutes of activity for those who sit most of the day can lower blood pressure in those with Type 2 diabetes.
• Stress can cause a steep rise in blood pressure.
4 — If I have high blood pressure, what should I do?
Your doctor may recommend medication in addition to lifestyle changes as part of your treatment plan. You may need to try different medications or use two or more in combination.
Lifestyle changes that help lower blood pressure include lose extra pounds if necessary, stay active, reduce salt, limit alcohol, quit smoking, reduce stress, get a good night’s sleep.
5 — Should I monitor my blood pressure at home?
The AHA recommends that people with high blood pressure monitor their blood pressure at home, to help your health care provider determine if treatment is working.
Last year, the AHA teamed up with several local organizations to launch the Mohawk Valley Blood Pressure Initiative. The goal is to get self-monitoring blood pressure monitors to residents.
For information about the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 315-580-3956.