Hypertension (aka, high blood pressure) is an epidemic in the United States, with nearly half of us affected by it.
For decades, high blood pressure has been determined by a top reading of at least 140 and/or a bottom one of 90.
However, a dozen medical groups have now dropped the threshold to 120 over 80. Under these new guidelines, 46 percent of American adults have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
The change has tripled the number of men under 45 and doubled the number of women under 45 with the diagnosis.
Hypertension quietly damages blood vessels and leads to serious health problems. Left untreated, hypertension increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, which are the No. 1 and No. 5 causes of death in the US.
Aside from heart attack/failure and stroke, high blood pressure can also lead to vision loss, kidney disease or failure, peripheral artery disease and sexual dysfunction.
Symptoms of high blood pressure include dizziness, blurred/double vision, headache and neck pain. Some people also experience drowsiness and difficulty breathing. These problems often arise when the blood pressure is too high.
However, since high blood pressure is a largely symptomless disease, millions of people are unaware that they have the condition. This is why hypertension is referred to as the “silent killer.” Many people with high blood pressure don’t even know they have it, according to the AHA.
The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have your blood pressure tested. Though you can test your blood pressure at home with a store-bought arm cuff/monitor, a diagnosis of high blood pressure must be confirmed by a medical professional.
Your blood pressure is recorded as two numbers. Systolic blood pressure (the upper number) indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when your heart beats. Diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while your heart is resting between beats. These numbers measure millimeters of mercury, shown as mm Hg.
Health professionals generally pay more attention to systolic blood pressure (the top number) as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over 50. In most people, systolic blood pressure rises steadily with age due to the increasing stiffness of large arteries, the long-term build-up of plaque and an increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease.
However, according to the AHA, elevated systolic or diastolic blood pressure alone may be used to make a diagnosis of high blood pressure. And, according to recent studies, the risk of death from ischemic heart disease and stroke doubles with every 20 mm Hg increase in systolic pressure or 10 mm Hg increase in diastolic pressure among people from age 40 to 89.
The guidelines set new categories and get rid of “prehypertension”:
• Normal: Under 120 / 80
• Elevated: Top number 120-129 and bottom less than 80
• Hypertension Stage 1: Top of 130-139 or bottom of 80-89
• Hypertension Stage 2: Top at least 140 or bottom at least 90
These new guidelines mean that 46 percent of U.S. adults have high pressure (stages 1 or 2).
High blood pressure interacts with other major risk factors, such as diabetes and high levels of cholesterol, to amplify the risk of heart attack and stroke. Treatment for hypertension must begin early to prevent organ damage.
High blood pressure develops slowly over time and can progressively worsen with age. Roughly half the people with untreated hypertension die of heart disease related to poor blood flow (ischemic heart disease) and another third die of stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While there is no cure for hypertension, changes in lifestyle can help you lower your blood pressure and keep it down.
Remember that drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol can raise blood pressure by several points, while also reducing the effectiveness of blood pressure medications.
Using tobacco can also cause your blood pressure to increase and can contribute to damaged arteries. Too much stress may also contribute to increased blood pressure.
Carrying too much weight puts an extra strain on your heart and circulatory system, which can cause serious health problems. Excess weight also increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Losing just 10 pounds can help reduce your blood pressure.
Maintain a healthy weight by eating a nutritious diet, rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, but low in salt, saturated fat and cholesterol.
Consistent exercise is also vital to lowering blood pressure and maintaining good health. Physical activity not only helps control high blood pressure and manage your weight, it also helps you strengthen your heart and lower your stress level. A healthy weight, a strong heart and general emotional health are all good for your blood pressure.
Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger. If your heart works less to pump blood, the force on your arteries decreases, lowering your blood pressure. Exercise also lowers blood pressure by alleviating blood vessel stiffness so that blood flows more freely. Regular exercise can lower your systolic blood pressure by an average of 4 to 9 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
On the other hand, inadequate physical activity increases your risk of developing high blood pressure. It can’t be overstated that physical activity is great for your heart and circulatory system, including blood pressure. It’s important to be consistent because if you stop exercising, your blood pressure can rise again.
If you have slightly high blood pressure (prehypertension), exercise can help you avoid developing full-blown hypertension. If you already have hypertension, regular physical activity can bring your blood pressure down to safer levels.
To improve overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association, the Surgeon General and the CDC all suggest at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity exercise, or an equivalent combination of both. The easiest way to think of it is 30 minutes per day, at least five days per week.
The best types of exercise for lowering blood pressure include walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or even dancing. Strength training can also help reduce blood pressure.
The important thing is to find activities that you enjoy. Then get in motion and stay in motion.