Each time we visit our doctor, we have our blood pressure taken. This reading is a way to find out if our hearts and arteries are healthy and functioning properly. High blood pressure readings can be warnings that we are due for some lifestyle changes. When our readings elevate beyond what is considered normal we can become more at risk for serious complications.
Types of High Blood Pressure
According to the NIH, there are two types of high blood pressure. The first is primary (or essential) high blood pressure which is the most common and develops over time as a person ages. The second type is called secondary high blood pressure. Secondary hypertension is caused by an underlying medical condition or medications. This type will usually resolve once the source is addressed.
What the Numbers Mean
As you’ve noticed, when you have a blood pressure reading taken the result displays two numbers. The top number is the “systolic” measure which measures the pressure in the arteries each time the heart beats. The systolic number is the higher of the two. The bottom number is called the “diastolic” which refers to the pressure measured between heartbeats when the heart is resting.
How High is Too High?
The next logical question most people have is whether their blood pressure is normal or if it is too high. How do we define these numbers? The American Heart Association’s recommendation for healthy blood pressure is 120mm Hg or less over 80mm Hg or less. High blood pressure is divided up into categories. These classes are:
- Prehypertension (120-139mm Hg OR 80-89mm Hg)
- Hypertension Stage 1 (140-159mm Hg OR 90-99mm Hg)
- Hypertension Stage 2 (160mm Hg+ OR 100mm Hg+)
- Hypertensive Crisis (Higher than 180mm Hg OR higher than 110mm Hg)
It is possible to get a high reading and not have high blood pressure. Sometimes you will see that a reading is followed up by another in the normal range. However, a reading in the hypertensive crisis category requires immediate emergency medical attention.
Why Does Hypertension Occur?
The exact causes are still unclear, but there are several factors thought to play a role. Some examples of this are:
- High salt levels in the diet
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Older age
- Kidney Disease
- Sleep Apnea
Controversy Over Treatment for High Blood Pressure
In 2014, a U.S Panel recommended raising the threshold for prescribing high BP treatment. The number had been 140 systolic, and the panel raised that number to 150. The new recommendation created quite a bit of controversy. The American Heart Association has not been willing to agree with this change and still recommends that healthcare providers continue to follow the existing guidelines for treating high blood pressure
Prevention – What You Can Do
There are steps you can take regardless of your age to lower your blood pressure. When you begin to practice these habits, you will improve your odds for blood pressure in normal/healthy ranges as you get older.
Having a healthy eating plan benefits us in a multitude of ways. Lower blood pressure is one of those benefits. Basic guidelines for a healthy diet include an emphasis on fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains and foods that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat.
Lowering your salt intake is vital if your goal is to reduce your blood pressure. The NIH suggests that older adults keep their salt intake around 2,300mg daily. Processed foods, canned foods, frozen foods and fast food are all examples of foods with very high salt content that you should avoid.
Being physically active is another way we can lower our blood pressure. Moderate aerobic exercise for 2-3 hours a week can accomplish this as well as lower our risk for other health problems. Something as simple as going for a 15-20 minute walk each day can have significant benefits.
Maintaining a healthy weight should also be a goal that you target. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, more than 2 in 3 adults are considered to be overweight or obese. As your body weight increases, so does your blood pressure. You should aim to keep your Body Mass Index (BMI) below 25.
It is also advisable to refrain from smoking and limit alcohol use. Smoking can cause a host of health issues. It can harden the arteries, cause cancer, cause heart disease and can increase your risk of having a stroke. The NIH suggests that men with elevated blood pressure limit their alcohol intake to 2 drinks or less per day and women limit their alcohol intake to 1 drink or less per day.
Treatment and Medications For High Blood Pressure
There is no complete cure for high blood pressure. It is a lifelong condition you will have to manage and take seriously. Most treatment options are the same as the preventative measures such as healthy dieting, exercise and weight management.
If your doctor diagnoses you with high blood pressure, he or she will likely prescribe medications. Some of these medications will work to remove the excess salt from your body while others will slow down the heartbeat and widen blood vessels. Examples of drugs that are prescribed are diuretics, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, alpha blockers and calcium channel blockers.
Understanding blood pressure and what the numbers mean is crucial as we age. It is something we need to keep track of and pay close attention. If you have not had your blood pressure reading taken recently, it is advisable that you get a current one and proceed accordingly. Whether it be preventative care or general treatment, keeping your blood pressure as close to normal ranges as possible can help you to live a longer and healthier life.