I came across a statistic the other day that literally stopped me in my tracks. In spite of the fact that high blood pressure was virtually unheard of in 1900 (approximately 5% of the population suffered from it), around 43 million Americans are currently taking medication for high blood pressure, or are otherwise affected by it. That's a whopping 24% of the population!
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a serious medical condition that is a major risk factor for:
- Heart attack and heart failure
- Chronic kidney disease
In fact, high blood pressure can wreak havoc on nearly all your major organs, and your risk for hypertension skyrockets if you're overweight or obese.
Your blood pressure is measured with two numbers, systolic and diastolic. A normal blood pressure reading is 90-119 systolic over 60-79 diastolic. If your pressure is 129/89, you are at the upper range for pre-hypertension, while 140/90 and above is classified as hypertension.
High blood pressure and cholesterol are intimately linked. High cholesterol causes your artery walls to thicken, thus reducing the amount of space blood has to move through them. That elevates the pressure in your arteries, causing your heart to work overtime to pump blood.
Unfortunately, high blood pressure generally doesn't have any symptoms. If you suffer from high blood pressure, there are a number of medications your doctor can prescribe to reduce your risk of life threatening illness. But all of those medications must be taken in addition to major lifestyle changes that can not only lower your blood pressure, but prevent it from ever entering the danger zone:
- Maintain a normal body weight: Obesity is a serious risk factor for high blood pressure. Maintaining a healthy body weight significantly lowers the likelihood that you'll suffer from many serious health problems, while simultaneously removing the unnecessary strain those extra pounds place on your heart. The CDC recommends shooting for a body mass index between 18.5-24.9kg/m2
- Reduce your sodium intake: Scientists are nearly united on sodium's relationship with high blood pressure. Reduce the salt in your diet, and make any salt you do eat natural and unrefined sea salt.
- Lay off the refined grains and artificial sweeteners: Refined grains (think white bread) and processed food are almost immediately converted into sugar in your body. Sudden spikes in blood sugar cause similar spikes in blood pressure. So add another very good reason to your list for staying away from most breads and all artificial sweeteners.
- Eat your fruits and vegetables: Doctors recommend 4-5 portions a day of fruits and vegetables to lower or avoid high blood pressure. Since both also act as diuretics, they carry the added bonus of removing excess sodium from your body.
- Lay off the sauce and skip the extra coffee: Alcohol definitely raises your blood pressure and caffeine might. Limit your intake of both. Also, don't smoke.
- Exercise! Even though there's no scientific consensus proving that stress contributes to high blood pressure, there's ample anecdotal evidence that it does. Luckily, the endorphins released during exercise calm us down and give us a serious case of the happys. Plus, exercise is a great way to maintain a healthy weight and to give our bodies the workout they require.
Even moderately increased blood pressure has the potential to shorten your life span significantly. Luckily, the vast majority of cases of high blood pressure are eminently avoidable. There are concrete steps we can all take to be healthy and increase both the quality and length of our lives.