Blood pressure is the measure of force of blood pushing against the blood vessel walls. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is dangerous because the heart has to work harder to pump blood to the body. It can contribute to the hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, and to the development of heart failure.
What makes it particularly dangerous is that there are usually no visible symptoms of the condition, so someone could have hypertension for decades without feeling or looking any different than someone with normal levels. The symptoms usually don’t come until much later in life, in the form of heart disease, kidney failure, or stroke. Maintaining healthy blood pressure levels early in life can drastically decrease your chance of these dangerous conditions later.
Monitoring Your Blood Pressure
Since hypertension can be so hard to observe, but has such severe potential consequences, it is essential to monitor your levels on a regular basis. Your doctor will provide you a blood pressure reading during visits, but I also monitoring your own levels more regularly throughout the year. The reading can vary drastically depending on many factors, which is why it is best to look at trends over time, or average your score over your last several recordings. Many pharmacies have free machines that you can use, and inexpensive home kits are readily available and easy to use. Try to take your readings in similar conditions (location, time of day, etc) each time. Find a quiet place when you are at rest and feeling calm. Write down your levels and take note if your numbers are trending in any directions over time.
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What the Numbers Mean
When you take your readings you will get two numbers. The higher number (systolic) measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (when the heart muscle contracts). The lower number (diastolic) measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats (when the heart muscle is resting between beats and refilling with blood). The top number seems to get more focus, but you should see how both numbers fall into the following chart.
- Normal: Less than 120 over 80 (120/80)
- Prehypertension: 120-139 over 80-89
- Stage 1 hypertension: 140-159 over 90-99
- Stage 2 hypertension: 160 and above over 100 and above
- Hypertensive crisis: 180 and above over 110 and above (emergency care is needed)
If you fall in the normal or prehypertension range, you are probably good, and should strive to maintain or adopt a healthy lifestyle to keep your levels at or below where they are. If you are in the hypertension stage, that is when it is best to consult your doctor about stronger lifestyle changes or discuss whether medication may be a better solution. State 2 hypertension can be very serious, and you should definitely consult your doctor. Medication will very likely be necessary at that point, at least until more normal ranges are achieved.
In as many as 95% of reported high blood pressure cases in the United States, the underlying cause cannot be determined. This type of blood pressure is called “essential hypertension”. There are many lifestyle choices or other conditions that are associated with high blood pressure, however. The following are considered some of the largest risk factors to hypertension:
- Lack of physical activity / obesity
- Too much salt in the diet
- Too much alcohol consumption (more than 1 to 2 drinks per day)
- Older age
- Genetics / Family history of high blood pressure
How to Keep Blood Pressure Low
An overall healthy lifestyle is the best way to combat high blood pressure, and, of course, is good advice for anyone. Anything that makes your heart work easier during normal daily conditions will be beneficial. Below are some of the more specific ways to do this:
Exercise / Weight Loss – Add exercise into your daily routine, even if it is as simple as a 20 minute walk on your lunch break. If you are overweight, time to start putting a little more effort into dropping those extra pounds.
Diet – Aside from healthier foods that will help you lose weight (if you are overweight), try to reduce salt in your diets. Avoid high sodium products, and reduce the extra amount of salt you add to your dishes when cooking or at the table. There have also been links to high potassium and magnesium to reducing blood pressure readings. This can be achieved by increasing your intake of bananas, avocados, tomato juice, leafy vegetables, and nuts.
Limit alcohol / coffee – No need to cut these out entirely, but if you’re drinking four mugs of coffee in the morning, and four mugs of beer in the evening, it’s time to cut back.
Reduce Stress – If you work in a high stress environment or feel that way at home, find ways to reduce these levels. Find time for peaceful activities such as reading, hiking, or listening to music. If you are feeling stressed or angry, don’t keep these feelings bottled up. Make sure you discuss it with your loved ones.
Medication – For those who are diagnosed with hypertension, medication may be a necessary solution. Especially for those with genetics or family history, changing your lifestyle alone may not be enough at first. Taking a daily pill may reduce your levels enough where you can later reduce your dose or stop taking the pills entirely. Obviously consult your doctor for an appropriate time table for your specific situation.
High blood pressure can be a serious condition, especially later in life. Since the symptoms are hard to spot, I strongly recommend that everyone maintains a healthy lifestyle and diet and checks their levels on a regular basis.