The silent killer, they call it, and with good reason: While other diseases expose their presence via various aches and pains, high blood pressure, or hypertension, usually causes no symptoms at all as it systematically damages your health. Hypertension is a major risk factor for stroke, coronary artery disease, and kidney disease, says Maurizio Trevisan, M.D., dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo. Its also linked to poor cognitive performance across the board.
In the United States, more than 50 million people have hypertension, but 30 percent dont even know it. More women than men are afflicted, and while cases peak for men in the age range of 45 to 54, for women the incidence keeps rising with age.
BY THE NUMBERS
High blood pressure is just that. When the pressure of your blood flow escalates, it exerts excess force on arterial walls, injuring these vital passageways and ultimately harming your organs. Blood pressure can vary significantly due to factors like body position, eating patterns, and moodstress and anger spike itso a reliable assessment often requires two or more seated readings on separate occasions. (You can check your pressure with a home monitor, but bring the unit into your doctors office to gauge its accuracy.) According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a healthy blood pressure level is less than 120/80. (The higher, or systolic, number is the pressure generated when the heart beats. The lower, or diastolic, figure is the pressure when the heart rests between beats.) Hypertension is defined as 140 or more systolic or 90 or more diastolic, with those at 120-139/80-89 considered prehypertensive. Starting at 115/75, the risk of cardiovascular disease doubles with every 20 points systolic and 10 points diastolic. Risk factors include increasing age, family history, and raceAfrican Americans have a higher incidenceas well as obesity, inactivity, fluid retention due to sodium, and the use of oral contraceptives, tobacco, or alcohol.
Pharmaceutical treatments for hypertension include diuretics, beta blockers, and ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors. But in the prehypertensive range among otherwise healthy people, lifestyle changes can control the condition. The most powerful behavior intervention is weight loss, says Trevisan. Its been shown over and over again: If you lose weight, your blood pressure goes down. Exercise helps control weight; it may also lower blood pressure by keeping the vessels from becoming rigid.
To an extent, your blood pressure mirrors what you eat. A diet dubbed DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) reduces blood pressure, especially when sodium intake is kept at or below 1,500 milligrams per day. The plan is low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat, and emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. (For sample menus and recipes, visit nhlbi.nih.gov and search for dash.)