If you are sitting around with two friends, odds are that one of you will experience high blood pressure – hypertension – in your lifetime. This common medical condition afflicts one in three Americans and 1 billion people around the globe.
When the heart beats, it pushes blood through the arteries. As the blood flows, it puts pressure on the arterial walls. This is called blood pressure.
A normal, healthy artery is the flexible, strong, elastic tube (technically, a blood vessel) through which oxygen-rich blood is pumped away from the heart to all parts of the body. The interior lining is smooth like a brand new plumbing pipe. Blood flows freely without restriction, nourishing organs and tissues with food (nutrients) and oxygen.
Blood pressure is the force of circulating blood on the walls of the arteries. A blood pressure reading has two numbers: the first is called systolic (measured when the heart beats when blood pressure at its maximum) and the second is diastolic (measured between heartbeats when blood pressure is at its minimum). A blood pressure reading shows the systolic blood pressure first and the diastolic blood pressure after it, separated by a forward slash – as in a normal reading of 120/80.
A common unit of measurement for blood pressure is called millimeter of mercury (mm Hg). It represents units of force per units of surface area and is defined as the extra pressure generated by a column of mercury one millimeter high. One millimeter of mercury is about 1 Torr, which is 1/760 of standard atmospheric pressure or exactly 133.322387415 pascals.
The more blood a heart pumps and the narrower the arteries, the higher the blood pressure reading. Forcing the heart to pump harder than normal puts stress on the cardiovascular system and wears it down in the long run.
Hypertension occurs when excess pressure is exerted on the arteries due to narrowing, causing cell damage and torn linings in the blood vessels. Long-term, elevated force of the blood against the arterial walls exhausts the heart muscle and reduces essential oxygen delivery throughout the body.
Fatty bits of plaque are trapped in the torn arterial linings and build up silently. The blockages are very similar to a sink’s drain pipe clogged by hair, soap, and debris. Plaque deposits stiffen the arteries and slow down the flow of blood even further.
Left untreated, hypertension can be dangerous. It creeps up, year after year, as active youths turn into sedentary adults. About half the people with untreated hypertension die of ischemic heart disease related to poor blood flow while another third die of stroke.
Ultimately, a person with undetected or untreated hypertension is likely to develop cardiovascular disease, aneurysm, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney failure, eye problems – and even a poor sex life.
Severe hypertension may be indicated by the following warning signs and should be checked out by a professional caregiver:
- Severe headache
- Fatigue or confusion
- Vision problems
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Irregular heartbeat
- Blood in the urine
- Pounding in the chest, neck or ears
Hypertension lowers quality of life. The good news is that there are plenty of things health-conscious people can do to take charge of their hypertension and manage it effectively.
- Get the lead out.
Don’t think of it as exercise. Think of it as the Dance of Life. Studies show that working out the cardiovascular system regularly is very effective in lowering high blood pressure. How much is enough? Experts advise 150 minutes of moderate exercise (such as walking or raking leaves) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (such as running or bicycling) each week to realize multiple fitness benefits.
- DASH your diet.
A food regime based on the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) has been shown to bring down high blood pressure up to 11 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) systolic. Opt for whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products rather than sugars, saturated fats, and high-cholesterol foods.
- Move away from the salt shaker.
Reducing sodium intake may help lower blood pressure. Substitute lemon juice (or lime juice) and try herb mixes and umami foods to keep your mouth watering without so much salt. Even small reductions in dietary sodium can elevate heart health and lower blood pressure by about 5-6 mm Hg. Potassium from fruits, veggies or supplements can reduce the harmful effects of sodium on blood pressure.
- Shed some pounds.
Being overweight often causes blood pressure to rise. Losing 10 pounds has a definite positive effect on lowering blood pressure. That extra padding around the waistline is called visceral fat and it gets in the way of all the abdominal organs, preventing them from optimum performance. The prevailing wisdom is that women’s waists should be no more than 35 inches and men’s girth should be 40 inches or less.
- Stop stressing.
People, environments, and events that trigger stress can provoke a temporary increase in blood pressure. Identify sources of stress and try to get them out of your life. If that isn’t possible, find coping mechanisms to blow off some steam before your heart blows a gasket. Our old friends exercise and diet can help calm a troubled mind, as can regular meditation, prayer or introspection.