How’s Your Blood Pressure?
May is Hypertension Month. Here’s what you need to know about “the silent killer.”
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a serious health problem in Canada. It’s the number one risk factor for stroke, and it’s also a major risk factor for heart disease. Nine in 10 Canadians will develop hypertension at some point in their lives, but it has no obvious symptoms, so many people don’t know until they suffer a stroke or heart attack. That’s why hypertension is often called “the silent killer.”
What is hypertension?
Blood pressure is the force of blood against the inside walls of your arteries when your heart pumps. We need a certain amount of pressure to move blood and deliver oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. When there is too much pressure, however, this can lead to permanent blood vessel damage. Over time, the damage reduces blood flow and can increase your risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney disease.
Measuring blood pressure
Health professionals measure blood pressure manually using a stethoscope or, more commonly, using a blood pressure cuff that goes around the arm. The cuff inflates with air, and as the air is slowly released, the machine takes blood pressure readings. Many pharmacies have blood pressure monitors, and some people have portable monitors for use at home.
A blood pressure reading has two numbers, written as a fraction. The top number is the “systolic” pressure, which is the pressure against your artery walls with each pump, or contraction, of your heart. The bottom number is the “diastolic” pressure, which is the pressure in your arteries between pumps, when your heart relaxes and refills with blood.
What is a “good” blood pressure reading to have? According to Heart & Stroke, the lowest-risk blood pressure is 120/80 (“120 over 80”). A medium-risk or moderate-risk blood pressure has a systolic number of 121 to 139 and a diastolic number of 80 to 89. Blood pressure in this range is also referred to as “pre-hypertension,” “high-normal” or “elevated.” A high-risk blood pressure, also referred to as “elevated,” has a systolic number of 140 or higher and a diastolic number of 90 or higher. If you have diabetes, 130/80 is considered high-risk.
One medium-high or high reading doesn’t necessarily mean you have hypertension. Blood pressure rises temporarily when we exercise or are under stress, for example. People often have higher blood pressure at the doctor’s office than they usually do (this is called the “white coat effect”). But if either the systolic or diastolic number remains higher than normal over time, it’s important to take steps to manage your blood pressure. The higher the numbers, the more potential for causing damage.
Risk factors for hypertension
We all have risk factors that are non-modifiable (unchangeable) or modifiable (we can influence them). Non-modifiable factors include your age and family history. Modifiable factors include body weight, eating habits, smoking, alcohol intake and activity level. Living a healthy lifestyle can help you avoid or control high blood pressure. Hypertension can affect anyone, but the risk does increase with age. It’s important to have your blood pressure checked regularly.
If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, talk to your doctor about what changes you can make to reduce your risk of health issues. There are many free resources that can help you improve your eating habits or quit smoking, for example. Your physician may prescribe medication to lower your blood pressure. There are several types, and it can take up to six weeks before you see results. Be sure to take your medication as prescribed.
Knowledge is power
Visit Hypertension Canada’s website to find more information about managing hypertension and monitoring blood pressure. You can also download the organization’s free home blood pressure log. Heart & Stroke also provides helpful hypertension information, as well as a free app for iOS and Android, <30 Days, that helps Canadians adopt healthy behaviours that can reduce their heart disease and stroke risk factors.
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