High Blood Pressure: Knowing Your Risk, Improving Lifestyle Habits

By now, you would think that most people are aware of the risks associated with high blood pressure, including heart disease and stroke – the two leading causes of death in the world.

But that’s not necessarily the case. And that’s why about 11 million U.S. adults have hypertension, or high blood pressure, and are not aware they have it and are not receiving treatment to control it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

May is “National High Blood Pressure Education Month,” a designation supported by the medical community and public health organizations to bring more awareness to the so-called “silent killer.” It is called that because most of the time hypertension has no obvious symptoms to indicate that something is wrong. May is also National Stroke Awareness Month. Hypertension is the primary risk factor for strokes.

High blood pressure can develop slowly over time and can be related to more than one underlying cause. Many people are also unaware that the condition can be managed effectively through lifestyle changes, including proper nutrition, weight management and regular exercise.

“People are increasingly aware that high blood pressure is important in terms of preventing heart attacks and stroke and overall heart health,” says Ian Del Conde, M.D., a cardiovascular specialist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “This is so especially true among older adults over 50. But not enough people grasp the importance of knowing your blood pressure and avoiding hypertension. I don’t think that the full recognition of the risk and implications is out there. But I do think that people are slowly changing.”

Blood pressure is the force of blood that pushes against the walls of your arteries as the heart pumps blood. High blood pressure is when this force against the artery walls is too high.

Stricter Definition of High Blood Pressure

A significant number of U.S. adults have become candidates for blood pressure medication or other treatment since stricter guidelines were implemented in late 2017. The stricter standard, the first major change in blood pressure guidelines in 14 years, redefined a reading of high blood pressure as 130/80, down from 140/90. An increasing number of adults under the age of 45 are now hypertensive. The new guidelines no longer include the category of “prehypertension,” which previously kicked in at systolic readings between 120 and 139 or a diastolic range between 80 and 89.

During the month of May, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) is challenging Americans to participate in a national pledge to #MoveWithHeart to help reduce their risk of high blood pressure.

Recent studies have confirmed that a regular exercise program can lower blood pressure as effectively as medication — although you should consult with your doctor about the effect of exercise on your treatment. The types of exercise in the studies included walking, jogging, running, cycling and swimming. Strength training with weights or other forms of resistance was also part of the research — as was a combination of aerobic and resistance training.

“Although they may be aware of the importance of treating high blood pressure, most people still have a very hard time in changing their lifestyle,” explains Dr. Del Conde. “They do not consider their own health as a top priority. And there is plenty of room for improvement, specifically when it comes to actually adopting a healthy lifestyle with the right diet and the right amount of activity — and having the right weight.”

Top Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure

Here are the top risk factors for high blood pressure, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute:

Age: Blood pressure tends to increase with age as blood vessels naturally thicken and stiffen over time. However, the risk of high blood pressure is increasing for young people, possibly due to the rise in the number of children and teens who are living with overweight or obesity.

Family history and genetics: High blood pressure often runs in families. Much of the understanding of the body systems involved in high blood pressure has come from genetic studies.

Unhealthy lifestyle habits: These habits include: unhealthy eating patterns, such as eating too much sodium, drinking too much alcohol and being physically inactive.

Race or ethnicity: Compared with other racial or ethnic groups, African Americans tend to have higher average blood pressure numbers and get high blood pressure earlier in life.

Sex: Before age 55, men are more likely than women to develop high blood pressure. After age 55, women are more likely than men to develop high blood pressure.

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