A long-term study on high blood pressure in more than 9,000 people in their 50s and older was halted recently because of an overwhelming, positive discovery: when the study participants lowered their systolic blood pressure number (the top number in a blood pressure reading) to 120 instead of the typically recommended 140, their risk of heart attack, heart failure and stroke was reduced by a third, and risk of death was reduced by almost a quarter.
The head of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute called the study data potentially lifesaving, and it’s easy to see why.
“When high blood pressure is not controlled, it can cause stroke, heart failure, heart attack,” says Julie Vu, M.D., an internist at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Garden Grove. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause other problems too, Dr. Vu says, including kidney damage and loss of vision. About 80 million adults have been diagnosed with high blood pressure (also called hypertension), according to the American Heart Association.
High blood pressure is a stealth disease—it can go undetected for years because it causes few or no symptoms. That’s why regular check-ups are important. “The guidelines for everyone, starting at age 18, is to have blood pressure checked every two years,” says Dr. Vu.
Some risk factors for high blood pressure can’t be changed: People older than 55 tend to have higher blood pressure, as do African Americans and people with kidney disease. “But other factors, such as being overweight, causes high blood pressure too,” Dr. Vu says, and this is well within a person’s control to change.
A diagnosis of high blood pressure can be frightening, but health care providers can recommend appropriate medications as well as diet and exercise adjustments. “Just because you’re diagnosed with high blood pressure doesn’t mean you can’t change your lifestyle,” says Dr. Vu. “This means eating a well balanced diet, exercise regularly, reduce stress, eliminate alcohol and stop smoking.”
Consuming high amounts of sodium is another culprit in high blood pressure, and people with high blood pressure can change this by checking nutrition labels on food. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 1,500 mg of salt per day, but many people eat far more than on a daily basis without even realizing it. “Packaged foods, fast food, going out to eat at restaurants,” says Dr. Vu, all contribute to high sodium intake. The American Heart Association warns that “The Salty Six” add sodium to the typical American diet:
- Breads and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Canned soup
- Sandwiches prepared at a fast food restaurant
Taking the challenge to lower high blood pressure can be lifesaving — and improve a person’s quality of life along the way.
Dr. Vu recalls that while working in a clinic where many patients were diagnosed with high blood pressure, she saw some of them bring it down by working hard to change their lifestyle. “Just by walking 30 minutes a day and eating more fruits and vegetables, they were able to drop their blood pressure and even get off meds,” she says. “It will make you feel better anyway, to get moving and not sit in front of TV or internet,” she says.