It’s important to learn the basics of high blood pressure. John von Arnim keeps our fingers on the pulse.
First the good news. Since the 1980s there has been a decline in the number of Australians suffering from high blood pressure (BP). That’s cold comfort, though, if you are one of the 32 per cent of Australian men over 25 who suffer from this symptomless epidemic. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, high blood pressure – a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure, kidney and eye damage and erectile dysfunction – remains the most common problem treated by GPs. There’s even worse news to come. A high proportion of the estimated 3.7 million Australians with high blood pressure don’t even know they have it.
How is BP measured?
Blood pressure is the force at which blood circulates through your body and is affected by how strongly the heart is beating and by the size of the vessels- arteries and arterioles – the blood is moving through. This pressure is measured by millimetres of mercury (mmHg) at two points-higher figure reached during each beat of the heart (systolic) and a lower one representing the constant pressure in the arteries (diastolk). Some doctors regard anything below 140/90 mmHg as normal, but the optimal figure is closer to 120/80. Anything over 140/90 equals high blood pressure or hypertension, while a systolic between 120 and 139 and a diastolic between 80 to 89 often indicates pre-hypertension.
How often should BP measured?
Before the early 30s high blood pressure isn’t that common. But after the age of 35, there’s one simple rule. Have your blood pressure checked every two to three years. Blood pressure fluctuates as anyone who has stood up too quickly from a flat-on-your back position knows. The time of day also affects blood pressure – it usually peaks in the evening and drops by up to 20 per cent in the wee small hours.
An explosion of rage or a tense day at work can also send blood pressure skyrocketing. So does the stress of a visit to the doctor which often induces what medics call “white coat hypertension”. For these and other reasons-doctors always re-check high readings.
Are you at risk?
Most cases of high blood pressure are linked to lifestyle and ageing. Overweight, a high alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, a high salt and saturated fat intake and a low intake of fruit and vegetables can put you on the fast track to high blood pressure. Stress only has a passing influence on high blood pressure, but it often steers people towards eating, drinking and smoking too much. Smoking is particularly dangerous because it triples the risk of heart attack and stroke in people with high blood pressure. Age (over 50 per cent of men over 60 have it), gender (more men than women suffer from high blood pressure) and family history also lead to elevated blood pressure levels.
What you can do?
High blood pressure – like life – can be unfair. It can occur in obese couch potatoes and it can blight the life of a trim, taut marathon runner. To lower pressure or prevent it from spiking in the first place, most doctors recommend lifestyle changes. Diet, of course, gets the thumbs up and so does a managed medical program. The last term is mainly a fancy phrase for cutting down on salt (one teaspoon a day is the max intake. Look out, though, 75 per cent of salt in the Australian diet comes from processed and prepared foods so start eating fresh), losing weight and doing more exercise. It’s a smart move to give up smoking, too. Denying the ciggies doesn’t lower blood pressure but it does lessen your chances of heading to an early grave, thanks to a heart attack.
Eating more fibre, fruits, vegetables and beans can help to lower blood pressure. A large-scale study of 17,000 people in the US showed that those who ate 8.5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day had significantly lower blood pressure than those who ate only 3 servings.
Systolic blood pressure increases with age as arteries stiffen and harden, so exercise doesn’t do that much for guys from the later 50s on. But moderate exercise for 30 to 45 minutes a day is very effective in reducing blood pressure in younger people. Be warned – if you stop walking or running, aerobic exercises and resistance training, blood pressure readings go right back up. Regular exercise also reduces blood levels of adrenaline which helps to lower your heart rate.
Getting enough sleep is a major plus, too. A sleep study found that people who only managed five hours or less sleep a night were more prone to high blood pressure than those who snoozed for the recommended seven to eight hours.
A direct link between stress and high blood pressure hasn’t been proved. When you are under stress your body releases hormones that make your heart pump faster and the blood vessels to constrict causing blood pressure to rise. But once the “moment of danger” has passed, your blood pressure settles down again. Some scientists believe that chronic stress increases wear and tear on the blood vessels, while others think that prolonged stress leads to bad lifestyle habits. Slow, relaxed breathing has been proved to lower blood pressure just as much as relaxation strategies and meditation and it’s free.
Can high BP be cured?
No, but it can be managed. In general, lifestyle changes help most men to manage high blood pressure. But for some people it’s not enough and dealing with high blood pressure can be a lifelong battle. Depending on the type of high blood pressure – fluid retention, over-exertion of the heart or too much of the enzyme renin in the kidneys – one drug or a combination of two to three drugs is used to get blood pressure back to target levels.
Worth A Try
A glass of red wine a day – no more – has been proved beneficial in reducing high blood pressure levels in many studies by improving vascular function. Owning a pet could be a good idea, too. A six month study of 48 Wall Street stockbrokers taking medication for high blood pressure showed that owning a pet helped to keep the lid on escalating blood pressure.