The lowdown on blood pressure
We owe our life to blood circulation. The heart pumps blood through our body's extensive network of blood vessels called arteries. The arteries carry the blood to our organs, supplying them with oxygen and nutrients.
To pump blood through the arteries, sometimes against gravity, the heart creates a force called “blood pressure”. Blood pressure depends on the amount of blood the heart pumps and the resistance to blood flow in the arteries. The more blood the heart pumps and the narrower the arteries, the higher the blood pressure.
Blood pressure has to be just right. If it is too low, the organs will not receive enough oxygen and nutrients; if it is too high, blood vessels and organs can get damaged. The higher the blood pressure and the longer it lasts, the more damage can occur.
As we age, many of us will experience some degree of hypertension, or elevated blood pressure. This condition can develop over many years. Most often, there is no clear cause and doctors refer to such hypertension as “essential”. Other reasons for high blood pressure include obstructive sleep apnoea, kidney problems, smoking, alcohol overuse, being overweight, stress, excess salt intake, lack of physical activity as well as adrenal and thyroid problems.
Even if you lead a healthy lifestyle, you may still be at risk for high blood pressure. Age, by itself, is a risk factor. Race is one too — high blood pressure is more common in black people. Family history can also play a role; high blood pressure tends to run in families.
Most people who have high blood pressure have no signs or symptoms. The only way to find out whether you have high blood pressure is to measure it. Usually, the diagnosis of high blood pressure requires several readings at your doctor's office. Automated blood pressure monitors are also available for home use.
It is important to diagnose and treat high blood pressure early. Uncontrolled hypertension can lead to a heart attack and stroke by damaging the blood vessels that supply the heart and the brain. Kidney damage may occur as well. If blood vessels in the eyes become damaged, loss of vision may result. An aneurysm, which is the weakening and bulging of a blood vessel wall, is a serious complication of high blood pressure. An aneurysm rupture can be life-threatening.
If you have high blood pressure, it is not too late to act. The good news is, there are many lifestyle changes and medical treatments to help lower your blood pressure and lessen the damage it could cause.
Eating healthy foods is a great start to an effective lifestyle modification programme. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is well worth a try. This diet emphasises fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy foods. Be sure to get enough potassium, which can help prevent and control high blood pressure.
Lowering the amount of salt in your diet can also help. Work with your doctor to figure out how much salt you should have each day. Maintaining a healthy weight can also help you lower your blood pressure and decrease the risk of related health problems.
Increasing physical activity can also reduce blood pressure. Aerobic exercise, such as jogging, is particularly effective. Exercise also has other benefits, including weight loss and helping manage stress. Healthier weight and lower stress level could help lower blood pressure even more. Other effective lifestyle changes include stopping smoking and limiting alcohol intake.
Sometimes, lifestyle changes alone cannot reduce blood pressure to a desirable range. In that case, your doctor may prescribe a medication. A variety of safe and effective blood pressure lowering medications is available. Often, the benefit of lower blood pressure outweighs a small risk of treatment.
You cannot ignore high blood pressure; it will most likely not go away on its own. It is a condition you will need to manage for the rest of your life. Keep regular doctor appointments, adopt a healthy diet and exercise programme, manage stress and take your medications as prescribed. Your body will repay you with years of active, fulfilling life.
• Mike Serebrennik is a physician by training and now a full-time entrepreneur, investor and writer. He is also a director of product development and sourcing at Lighthouse Medical Supplies, Ltd, a local company dedicated to helping patients and healthcare providers lower the cost and increase the quality of care.