Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major factor that determines how long a person will live. Blood pressure is simply a measurement of the force against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood through your body. If your blood pressure is too high, it injures your arteries and causes them to harden. The heart has to then work harder to keep the blood flowing. It compensates by the heart muscle growing larger, but that makes it less efficient. The walls of the arteries also become weak and can even break or burst. If you also have high cholesterol, the high blood pressure causes fat to build up inside the wall of the arteries and restricts the blood flow. If your arteries are clogged, you can’t get proper nourishment to your organs and muscles, and they won’t get enough oxygen. You feel weak and fatigued and can’t function properly.
Eventually, hypertension can lead to more drastic effects: it is a major leading cause of heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, headaches, and even blindness.
But what do your blood pressure measurements mean? The top (systolic) number is the amount of pressure in your arteries that your heart has to overcome to send the blood out the door (valve) and throughout your body. That’s the force of your heartbeat. Then your heart will relax briefly to fill with blood before the next beat. That’s the bottom (diastolic) number.
What numbers are considered normal? The healthiest blood pressure is below 120/80 (although blood pressure can get too low, as well). Your risk of damaging your internal organs increases as the pressure rises.
All adults should know what their own blood pressure is, but blood pressure can change throughout the day and is influenced by our activity, mood, and even the foods and beverages we consume. Check your blood pressure any time you are at a grocery store or pharmacy, drop by a medical clinic, or purchase your own automatic blood pressure cuff from any local pharmacy and measure your blood pressure in the mornings after sitting for a few minutes at the kitchen table. Keep a log book or phone app recording of your readings. Bring this to your next doctor’s appointment for review.
If your systolic blood pressure is over 120 but below 140, your doctor may watch it for several months and talk about what you can do on your own to lower it further. If you are consistently above 140, you may need medication to help bring it down. Diabetics and heart and kidney patients have stricter rules for controlling their pressures.
How can you manage your blood pressure? We really don’t have much choice about our family history, age, or ethnicity—all of which are risk factors for high blood pressure. But we can improve it if we are physically active, are not overweight or obese, do not smoke, and manage stress in a healthy manner.
Even our diet can make a big difference in controlling hypertension. Too much salt causes our bodies to retain too much water, which can then increase our blood pressure. So watch for the hidden colors of salt. All of these “colors” contain large amounts of sodium and should be avoided in excess: white (table salt), black (soy sauce), red (catsup/salsa/tomato juice/tomato sauce), green (relish/pickles), yellow (mustard), and brown (BBQ sauce/gravy). You get the idea. Read labels on everything packaged, preserved, bottled, or canned, and try to keep your sodium intake to less than 1500 mg daily.
Even with our best efforts, we may still require medication to keep this subtle thief from stealing our health away. My advice is to do whatever it takes. Life is far too precious. Consult with your own physician and catch this silent stalker before it has any chance of harming you. You’ll be glad you did.
Now let’s get healthy!
Thomas J. Boud, MD, is board certified in family medicine and practices in Salt Lake Valley. He is also a volunteer physician for the Church’s Missionary Medical Department and cares for the health care of many of the local full-time missionaries. He is an avid runner, having completed more than 60 full marathons. He is married to a very patient wife and has six beautiful children.