At Westchester Health, a great many of our patients have high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) but not all of them fully understand what this condition means. Blood pressure refers to the force of your blood pushing against your artery walls as it flows throughout your body. Too much force, i.e., high blood pressure, can damage your arteries and lead to life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
Many people can have high blood pressure for years without any symptoms
The only way to know if your blood pressure is too high is through regular checkups, which is why annual physicals are so important, no matter your age. In the U.S. alone, more than 30% of American adults have high blood pressure.
High blood pressure, not heart attack or stroke, is the most common cardiovascular disease
If left untreated, it can lead to serious consequences and possibly death.
How blood pressure is measured
Your blood pressure is represented by two numbers, the systolic (the top number) and diastolic (the bottom number). These numbers are determined both by the amount of blood your heart pumps and the amount of resistance to blood flow in your arteries. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.
When your heart beats, it squeezes and pushes blood through your arteries to the rest of your body. This force creates pressure on those blood vessels, which is the systolic blood pressure.
- A normal systolic pressure is below 120.
- A reading of 120-129 is elevated.
- 130-139 is stage 1 high blood pressure (also called hypertension).
- 140 or more is stage 2 hypertension.
- 180 or more could be a hypertensive crisis and you should call your doctor right away.
The diastolic reading, or bottom number, is the pressure in the arteries when the heart rests between beats. This is when the heart fills with blood and gets oxygen.
- A normal diastolic blood pressure is lower than 80, but even if your diastolic number is below 80, you can still have high blood pressure if the systolic reading is 120-129.
- 80-89 is stage 1 hypertension.
- 90 or more is stage 2 hypertension.
- 120 or more is a hypertensive crisis and you should call 911 right away.
How to know if you have high blood pressure: what to look for
If you have any of the following symptoms, see a doctor immediately. You could be having a hypertensive crisis that could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
- Severe headache
- Severe Fatigue
- New Vision problems
- Chest discomfort
- Difficulty breathing
- Irregular heartbeat
- Blood in your urine
- Pounding in your chest, neck or ears
10 things you can do to lower your blood pressure
If you can successfully control your blood pressure with a healthy lifestyle, you may avoid, delay or reduce the need for medication and hopefully prolong your life. Here are 10 important lifestyle changes you can make to lower your blood pressure and keep it down.
Lose extra pounds and watch your waistline
Weight loss is one of the best ways to control blood pressure. Losing just 10 pounds can help bring it down. But as well as shedding pounds, you also need to keep an eye on your waistline. Carrying too much weight around your waist can put you at greater risk of high blood pressure.
- Men are at risk if their waist measurement is greater than 40 inches
- Women are at risk if their waist measurement is greater than 35 inches
Regular physical activity—at least 30 minutes several days a week—can lower your blood pressure significantly. It’s important to be consistent because if you stop exercising, your blood pressure can rise again.
Eat a healthy diet
Eating a diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products and low in saturated fat and cholesterol can lower your blood pressure by up to 14 mm Hg.
Reduce sodium in your diet
Even a small reduction in the sodium in your diet can reduce blood pressure by 2 to 8 mm Hg. To decrease sodium in your diet, follow these tips:
- Read food labels. When possible, choose low-sodium alternatives of the foods and beverages you normally buy.
- Avoid processed foods. Only a small amount of sodium occurs naturally in foods. Most sodium is added during processing.
- Don’t add salt. Just 1 level teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium. Instead, use herbs or spices to add flavor to your food.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
Each cigarette you smoke increases your blood pressure for several minutes after you finish. The good news: quitting smoking helps your blood pressure return to normal. People who quit smoking, regardless of age, have substantial increases in life expectancy.
Cut back on caffeine
Caffeine can raise blood pressure by as much as 10 mm Hg.
Reduce your stress
Chronic stress is a major contributor to high blood pressure, particularly if you react to stress by eating unhealthy food, drinking or smoking. Instead, look for healthy ways to relieve stress, such as exercise, yoga, group activities or meditation.
Monitor your blood pressure at home and see your doctor regularly
Home monitoring can help you keep up to date with your blood pressure, find out if your lifestyle changes are working, and alert you and your doctor to potential health complications. Blood pressure monitors are widely available without a prescription.
Having supportive family and friends can really help in your efforts to lower or control your blood pressure. If you find you need support beyond your family and friends, consider joining a support group which can put you in touch with others who can give you valuable encouragement and advice to cope with your condition.
Risk factors for high blood pressure
- The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age. Men are more likely to develop high blood pressure around age 45, while women are more likely to develop it after age 65.
- High blood pressure is more common among African Americans, often developing at an earlier age than in Caucasians. Serious complications, such as stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, also are more common in African Americans.
- Family history. High blood pressure tends to run in families.
- Being overweight or obese. The more you weigh, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood circulated through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls.
- Not being physically active. People who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction and the stronger the force on your arteries. Lack of physical activity also increases the likelihood of being overweight.
- Using tobacco. Not only does smoking or chewing tobacco immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure. Note: Secondhand smoke also can increase your blood pressure.
- Too much salt (sodium) in your diet. Too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.
- Too little potassium in your diet. Potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. If you don’t get enough potassium, you can accumulate too much sodium in your blood.
- Drinking too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than 2 drinks a day for men and more than 1 drink a day for women may affect your blood pressure.
- High levels of stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure. But if you try to counteract stress by eating more, smoking or drinking, you may only increase your risk of high blood pressure.
- Chronic conditions. Certain chronic conditions also may increase your risk of high blood pressure, such as kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea.
- Sometimes pregnancy contributes to high blood pressure.
If you’re concerned about your blood pressure and want to get it checked, please come see us
If you think you may have high blood pressure, have been experiencing symptoms, or want to know what your exact numbers are, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health cardiologists. We’ll measure your blood pressure, evaluate if it is normal or too high, and together with you, decide on the best treatment plan to keep you as healthy as possible. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.