What You Must Know About Hypertension

  • High blood pressure, or hypertension, is often called "The Silent Killer" because most people have no symptoms of the condition. Sometimes a dull headache and dizzy spells alert a sufferer that something is amiss, but that usually happens in the later stages. Early on, the only way to know whether or not you're at risk is to have your pressure checked. Because aging is a factor, almost everyone has elevated pressure at some point. For women, menopause also plays a part. So don't assume you're exempt even though you feel great! The good news, though, is that along with simply getting older, lifestyle choices are involved. When you learn that your numbers are going up, you can take simple steps to bring them down to safe levels – and keep them there.

    Here's what you need to understand in order to control hypertension.
  • Systolic Pressure Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Typically the "mm Hg" isn't added to a report of blood pressure. You'll only see the numbers in what looks like a fraction, for example 119/79. People usually say "119 over 79" when talking about the numbers.

    The top one is called the systolic pressure. "Systolic" comes from the Greek "systole" which means "a contraction." The term was first used in the 16th century to describe the contraction of the heart muscle.
  • Diastolic Pressure The term for the bottom number is diastolic pressure. "Diastolic" came from the Greek "diastole" which means "a drawing apart." This number measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart is relaxed.
  • What Your Numbers Tell You This is what your numbers mean:

    Normal = 119/79
    Pre-Hypertension =120-139/80-89
    Stage 1 Hypertension = 140-149/90-99
    Stage 2 Hypertension = 160/100 or higher for both
  • Primary Hypertension Also called "essential" or "idiopathic," this is the garden variety version of high blood pressure that happens to virtually everyone with advancing age. Approximately 72 million Americans have the condition. Genetics may also play a part so if hypertension "runs in the family," be especially careful about getting your pressure checked and monitoring it yourself.
  • Secondary Hypertension According to the May Clinic, only 5% of cases of high blood pressure are classified as secondary. The causes include:

    Kidney problems
    Adrenal gland tumors
    Certain defects in blood vessels you're born with (congenital)
    Certain medications, such as birth control pills, cold remedies, decongestants, over-the-counter pain relievers and some prescription drugs
    Illegal drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines
  • White Coat Hypertension Some patients have abnormally high blood pressure readings when they're in the doctor's office simply because of anxiety about the possible results of an exam and a feeling of powerlessness in the presence of a medical authority in a white coat. That's why your doctor may have you sit quietly for a while after a reading and then try again. Most often, this meditation moment will do the trick and your numbers will drop to more realistic levels. However, if you have high readings in the office, you're a really good candidate for home monitoring. Get your own cuff and keep track on a spreadsheet of your pressure one or two afternoons each week. That's when you'll get the most accurate numbers. Also, your doctor can calibrate your cuff for you so that the readings are true.
  • Eating for a Healthy Heart You can't turn back the clock, but there's plenty you can do to modify your lifestyle and keep your numbers in an acceptable range. Good nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight are especially important. You need enough potassium and you should limit your intake of salt. The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, includes:

    Lean meat and poultry
    Milk, yogurt, and cheese
    Beans and lentils
    Whole grains
    Unsaturated fats and oils
  • Drinking in Moderation Excess alcohol consumption will raise your blood pressure, especially over the long term. However, if you cut back you can lower your numbers again. For women, the limit should be one drink a day and for men, two drinks a day. Remember, though, that sensitivity to alcohol increases with age. Many experts now recommend that people over the age of 65 should drink even less than the amounts recommended for younger people.
  • Exercise One of the biggest favors you can do for your heart is to get moving! A sedentary lifestyle not only promotes hypertension in and of itself, but it also contributes to weight gain. Walking at a brisk pace is an ideal form of daily exercise. Get out in the fresh air if you can. But when the weather doesn't cooperate, why not join a group of "mall walkers"? You'll get your heart pumping and you'll also have the added benefit of socializing. That will lower your stress level and with it your blood pressure.
  • Smoking In a word, DON'T. Smoking is guaranteed to raise your blood pressure along with all the other health risks you'll incur. If you can't quit cold turkey, get the help of a support group or try smoking cessation products. You'll be adding years to your life!
  • Stress Management Worry and anxiety can cause your blood pressure to shoot up to risky levels. Proven ways to calm down include meditation, listening to soothing music, being with friends and family, and most of all, having a good laugh. If you're by yourself, turn on the Comedy Channel and give yourself a dose of what really is the best medicine!
  • Medication Even if you're religious about making all the lifestyle changes you possibly can, you may still nee medication to keep your numbers where they should be. Your doctor will prescribe the best drug or combination of drugs for you. Take the pills faithfully at the recommended time of day. Skipping a dose is risky. Many people develop a routine that reminds them when it's time to reach for the meds, or you can even set an alarm on your computer or phone. This way, along with all the good habits you've been forming, you can rest assured that you're doing everything you can to make sure hypertension doesn't rob you of the optimum health you deserve.