Taking Action to Control High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure also called hypertension is a chronic condition that affects more than 65 million American adults. It is a condition that can be genetic or acquired through poor lifestyle choices. Hypertension can damage your health in many ways. Chronically elevated blood pressure puts stress on your blood vessels and cause hardening of the arteries. This hardening of the arteries from hypertension limits blood flow to major internal organs and can be linked to heart disease (heart attack), kidney disease and stroke. In some circumstances a chronically elevated blood pressure could weaken blood vessels to the point of rupture causing internal bleeding, most concerning in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke) or with the Aorta which is the major vessel bringing blood to the body.

It is important to understand how blood pressure is measured. Blood pressure is the force of blood against your artery walls. It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and recorded as two numbers—systolic pressure (when the heart beats) over diastolic pressure (when the heart relaxes between beats). Both numbers are important. Normal blood pressure readings are less than 120 for the systolic pressure and less than 80 for the diastolic pressure; prehypertension–blood pressure levels are slightly higher than normal– 120-139 systolic, 80-89 diastolic; and hypertension 140 or higher for systolic and 90 or higher for diastolic.

It is important to understand that blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day and can be elevated due to stress, stimulants like coffee or cigarettes and some medications. Once an elevated blood pressure is found it is important to follow up with your doctor to trend you blood pressure over a period of time.

High blood pressure affects 1 in 3 American adults. High blood pressure can also run in families. It is possible for people to inherit genes than make them more likely to develop the condition. This risk can increase even more when combined with unhealthy habits such as smoking and poor eating habits.

High blood pressure often has no warning signs or symptoms. Once it occurs, high blood pressure usually lasts a lifetime but is a condition that can be treated. Initial treatment consists of lifestyle changes such as lowering salt and caffeine intake and quitting smoking. Your physician may consider using a medication regime if lifestyle changes alone do not improve your blood pressure. If uncontrolled, it can lead to heart and kidney disease, stroke, and blindness. For more information, visit www.nhlhi.nih.gov or www.cdc.gov.

So, what can you do to take action to control high blood pressure? High blood pressure can be prevented or controlled with a healthy diet and proper exercise. Here are a few tips:
• Maintain a healthy weight.
• Be moderately physically active on most days of the week.
• Follow a healthy eating plan, which includes foods lower in sodium. One to try is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan developed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/index.htm.)
• If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.
• If you have high blood pressure and are prescribed medication, take it as directed.

Do you know your blood pressure? Have it checked regularly. Children should have routine blood pressure checks starting at 3 years of age. Once a year is recommended for most adults, unless your heath care provider advises otherwise. Southwestern Vermont Medical Center (SVMC) will be offering free blood pressure checks at the Bennington Mayfest, May 26. Be sure to stop SVMC's tent to get your free blood pressure check!


Dr. James Poole is the medical director for the hospitalist program at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. “Health Matters” is a weekly column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. To learn more SVMC, visit svhealthcare.org. You can also visit SVMC on Facebook.