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What you need to know about high blood pressure

And what you can do to control this major risk factor for heart disease

According to recent estimates, about one in three US adults has high blood pressure (also known as hypertension).

The really scary part is that an estimated 30 - 40% of those don't know it! There are usually no symptoms.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure, or kidney failure.

According to the American Heart Association blood pressure should ideally be120/80 or less. A reading over 120/80 up to 139/89 is considered prehypertension, and above this level (140/90 or higher) is considered high blood pressure (hypertension).

Changes in your posture (seated, standing, or lying down), activity, or sleeping can all affect your blood pressure.

Chances are if you are living with heart disease you are watching (or should be watching) your blood pressure. What can you do?

Lower your risk by lowering your blood pressure.

  • If you have heart disease you may be on medications to lower your blood pressure.Take your medication as prescribed.Medication will not be effective if it's not taken as directed. If you are experiencing side effects, talk to your doctor - there may be a another medication or a different dosage you can use.
  • Monitor your blood pressure regularly at home. There are many quality home monitors available. Note: Doctors advise against using wrist or finger digital monitors due to inaccurate readings. Instead purchase a monitor with an arm cuff.When taking your blood pressure, avoid smoking, eating, drinking coffee, tea, or alcohol, or heavy physical exercise for at least 30 minutes prior. Sit quietly for 5 minutes. Take two readings about 3 - 5 minutes apart. Keep a record of your readings. This will help you see any changes over time, and create a record you can share with your doctor.We've provided a handy Blood Pressure Logfor ease of tracking your readings.
  • Reduce the fat (particularly saturated fat) and salt in your diet.
  • Lose or control your weight.

  • Get more exercise.

  • Quit smoking.

  • Your doctor may recommend reducing how much alcohol you drink.
  • Get regular checkups. Remember that home monitoring is not a substitute for periodic evaluation by your doctor or other health professionals.

What do the numbers mean?

The first number is the systolic reading. It is the force of the blood against your artery walls when your heart is contracting.

The second number is the diastolic reading. It is the lowest pressure in your arteries when your heart is relaxed and filling with blood.

Systolic is the upper number for blood pressure. Diastolic is the lower number. I came across this way to remember which is which: Saints (upper) and Devils (lower.

One high reading doesn't mean you have high blood pressure. If you have a high reading check it several times over a few days to see if it's consistently high.

At Risk?

There are lots of things you can to do to keep your blood pressure in the healthy range, but there are a few things you can't change including:

  • Your age. According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, about half of people over 65 have high blood pressure.
  • Your family history. If close relatives have hypertension, you are a greater risk.
  • Your ethnicity. Those of South Asian, Black, Aboriginal, or Inuit descent have greater risk.

If you have any of these risk factors, it becomes even more important to make heart healthy lifestyle choices.

What about salt?

Reducing salt in your diet is one of the things you can do to help avoid or control high blood pressure. Processed foods contain lots of salt. Read the labels and you will be amazed at how much sodium they contain.

Avoid "hidden" salt in foods such as processed meats like salami, in Chinese food, ketchup, and soy sauce. When you eat out, be cautious because even vegetables or meat may have been prepared with a lot of salt. More...

What about potassium?

Too little potassium can affect your blood pressure, as well as causing heart rhythm irregularities. By increasing dietary potassium, some people are able to reduce the their blood pressure medication. According to Harvard Medical School's HEALTHbeat, a study in Italy compared 27 people with high blood pressure who increased their potassium intake with another 27 followed their usual diets. After one year, 81% of those on the high-potassium diet were able to cut their medications by more than half, while only 29% of the people who followed their usual diets could cut back that far.

Although this sounds great, check with your doctor before increasing your intake of potassium. With some medical conditions— for example, kidney disease — you may need to avoid both potassium and salt.

If you are taking diuretics to eliminate excessive fluids from your body, you may be advised by your doctor to take extra potassium.

Foods containing lots of potassium include bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, orange juice, avocado, and prunes.

What about drug store monitors?

These blood pressure monitors are generally reasonably accurate but have some limitations. For example, people with very small or large arms may get an inaccurate reading. As well, your pressure may be elevated due to activities associated with shopping (carrying heavy parcels).

For complete confidence, have your pressure checked by a health care professional.

What about pets?

Studies have actually shown that having a pet can help reduce blood pressure, especially in stressful situations.

One well-known study was conducted at the State University of New York in the late 90s that focused on 48 stockbrokers who were taking medication for high blood pressure. The study revealed that the brokers who got a pet reduced increases in blood pressure due to stress by half.

As well, the study showed that pets were the best support when it came to stressful tests - more so than spouses! Probably because they don't give advice or talk back.

Dog or cat? Although you may have strong preferences, it makes no difference to the positive effect on blood pressure. And the results were evident in both men and women alike.

An added bonus, when you pet your animal, not only does your blood pressure go down, but so does your pet's!

One more benefit - having a pet dog means you will need to get out for regular walks. Exercise is one of the key ways to control blood pressure.

The consequences of untreated high blood pressure

It's not uncommon for people to discontinue taking their medication or to slack off on lifestyle changes - especially if they are feeling well. If you think monitoring and controlling your blood pressure is not that big of a deal, consider these serious effects of hypertension:

  • Hardening and thickening of arteries
  • Increased risk of heart attack due to blocked arteries
  • Weakening and enlarging of the heart - possibly leading to congestive heart failure
  • Increased risk of stroke - pressure is too great for weakened blood vessels
  • Strain on kidneys - leading to damage to, or failure of, kidneys

blood pressure monitors
Blood Pressure Changes Can Be Caused By Any of the Following:
  • medication
  • eating
  • recent caffeine intake
  • alcohol
  • smoking
  • moving around during reading
  • not resting arm on table during reading
  • sleep
  • stress or nervousness
  • full bladder
  • exercise or exertion
  • pain
  • hot tubs or bath

Check Your Home BP Monitor

If using a home blood pressure monitor, have its accuracy checked by your doctor.

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