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The lowdown on high blood pressure

And how it affects your health

A blood pressure reading is a staple of every doctor’s visit — no matter what it’s for. The nurse straps a cuff to your upper arm to get a reading of two numbers — systolic and diastolic blood pressure. These numbers tell you how much blood your heart is pumping (systolic blood pressure — or the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats) as well as how much resistance it faces in your arteries (diastolic blood pressure — or the pressure in your arteries between heartbeats).

Your blood pressure can vary from reading to reading, but it’s considered normal if your systolic blood pressure is below 120, and your diastolic blood pressure is below 80.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services External Site, 108 million Americans — nearly half of the population — have high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), and most of them (82 million) do not have it under control. Of that group, 36 million have consistent blood pressure readings that are higher than 140 over 90.

So, why is it important to pay attention to your blood pressure? If it’s too high for too long, it can cause some serious health problems like heart disease, kidney disease, heart attack and stroke. And, high blood pressure often doesn’t come with any symptoms or warning signs, so it can go undetected for years while wreaking havoc on your internal organs.

The good news (yes, there’s finally some good news!): You can control hypertension with lifestyle changes, medication, or a combination of both.

Risk factors for developing high blood pressure

There are several risk factors for developing high blood pressure — some that you can control and some that you can’t. These include your age, race, genetics, family history, lifestyle, health conditions like diabetes and pregnancy.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about any of these risk factors.

How to prevent high blood pressure

If your blood pressure readings are usually normal, you can still take steps to prevent hypertension before it starts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this includes:

prevent high blood pressure
    • Eating a healthy diet that is low in salt and saturated fat but high in potassium, fiber, and protein.
    • Being physically active, aiming for at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week (that’s only 30 minutes a day, five days a week).
    • Maintaining a healthy weight by choosing healthy foods and getting regular exercise or physical activity.
    • Quitting smoking to prevent tobacco from raising your blood pressure.
    • Limiting alcoholic beverages, which can also raise your blood pressure — aim for no more than two drinks per day (men) and one drink per day (women).
    • Getting enough sleep, which helps keep your heart and blood vessels healthy (and as a bonus, it helps you manage stress too).

The DASH Diet

Good dietary guidelines to follow when managing high blood pressure can be found in the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet. The DASH Diet advises you to limit consumption of processed foods, fatty foods, sugar, salt, carbohydrates, caffeine, and alcohol.

Instead, it recommends filling your diet with fruits and vegetables (especially ones that are high in antioxidants), whole grains, high-protein foods, calcium-rich foods, leafy greens and beans (which have a lot of potassium and magnesium).

For more information on the DASH Diet, go to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Association’s website External Site.

How to manage high blood pressure

If your doctor has diagnosed you with pre-hypertension or hypertension, you may need to incorporate medication, in addition to lifestyle changes to help keep your blood pressure levels in a healthy range.

Pre-hypertension, or elevated blood pressure External Site, happens when your systolic blood pressure is consistently slightly elevated (between 120 and 129 mm Hg), but your diastolic blood pressure is normal. If you have pre-hypertension, you’re likely to develop hypertension if you don’t make any changes.

Unfortunately, because hypertension is a chronic condition, there is no cure External Site. Once you have hypertension, it’s important to take regular blood pressure readings, work with your doctor on a treatment plan, take your medications as prescribed, and adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle External Site.

Take the next step for better health

One of the most important things you can do to help prevent or manage high blood pressure is develop a partnership with a personal doctor. Working with your health care team to manage a chronic condition like hypertension will help you have the best possible outcome. If you don’t already see the same doctor for your annual preventive visits, you can find one that’s in your network by registering for or logging in to myWellmark® Opens New Window.