Blood pressure is not one of the most interesting and sexy subjects in health science. In contrast to the latest findings about the brain, learning more about hypertension is unlikely to evoke wonder or yield new insights into the meaning of human life and the universe. Moreover, treating high blood pressure probably won’t make an immediate difference in how a person feels. In fact, the vast majority of people with high blood pressure (otherwise known as hypertension) do not have any symptoms from the condition. This is why it has been called the silent killer.
On the other hand, hypertension is common. By one estimate, 90% of people who live to age 80 will have developed high blood pressure. Left untreated, it can lead to heart attacks and strokes, as well as kidney and heart failure. Hypertension is usually easy to treat with medications that are inexpensive and well tolerated. In my work with hospice, I sometimes see people dying of these conditions at an early age because their hypertension was never addressed and treated.
So what exactly is blood pressure? It is the pressure in our arteries, those vessels that bring blood to all the cells in our body. Blood pressure is recorded as 2 numbers, for example 120/80. The top number is called the systolic blood pressure and is the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts (systole). The bottom number, termed the diastolic blood pressure, is the pressure when the heart relaxes (diastole).
According to the most recent guidelines, hypertension for people less than 60 years old is defined as having an average blood pressure greater than 140/90. For people, greater than age 60, the new blood pressure goal is having an average less than 150/90. Keeping an individual’s average blood pressure less than these levels markedly lowers his or her risk of having heart attacks, strokes, kidney and heart failure.
How do you know if you have high blood pressure? Since hypertension usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, you have to check your reading to be aware of its presence. This can be done at your doctor or dentist’s office, using a cuff commonly found at pharmacies, or by buying an easy to use home blood pressure machine. When assessing your blood pressure, it is important to remember that it is the average readings you see that count. So don’t get worried about a few stray high numbers. But if you have blood pressure readings that are persistently in the hypertensive range, it is important to see your physician for a discussion.
Some lifestyle measures for preventing and treating hypertension are a low salt diet, regular aerobic exercise, stress management, maintaining a healthy weight, abstaining from heated discussions about Duck Dynasty on Facebook, and avoidance of Dallas Cowboy television viewing.