High blood pressure is the number one cause of stroke, yet many people are totally unaware this silent killer is lurking, as there are usually no symptoms until the damage is well underway. More than 68 million American adults, about 1 in 3, have high blood pressure, putting them at risk for stroke, the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association has identified the top seven factors that contribute to high blood pressure. Some of these factors are controllable and being aware of the others is key to managing long-term cardiovascular health:
1. An inactive lifestyle. Lack of physical activity increases your odds of having high blood pressure, but it’s also a primary risk factor for heart disease, blood vessel disease and obesity.
2. Obesity. More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight, causing an extra strain on heart and cardiovascular systems.
3. Poor diet. Consuming too much salt raises blood pressure. A poor diet that is high in calories, unhealthy fats and sugars and low in good nutrition contributes to obesity.
4. Alcohol. Regularly drinking too much alcohol can significantly increase blood pressure.
5. Age. There is a greater risk for developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases in general as we age, because aging blood vessels lose flexibility, which increases pressure.
6. Gender. Until the age of 45, more men than women have higher blood pressure, but after that, the tables turn. At the age of 64, there are more women than men with high blood pressure. It is thought that circulating estrogen prior to menopause has a protective effect for women under 45 but that after menopause, a different hormonal balance restricts blood vessels.
7. Family History. You have a higher risk if your parents or a close blood relative developed high blood pressure.
The good news is that it is easy to find out if you have high blood pressure. Cardiologist Tracy L. Stevens, M.D., volunteer and spokesperson for the American Heart Association says, “Being aware of your own blood pressure is imperative. Each of us needs to take this on as our responsibility because by being aware, we can prevent our number one health threat of developing heart attack and stroke. I personally feel a basic staple in every home in America should be a blood pressure cuff.” Dr. Stevens is a cardiologist with Saint Luke’s Cardiovascular Consultants, medical director at Saint Luke’s Muriel I. Kauffman’s Women’s Heart Center and Professor of Medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.
While a blood pressure check is a regular part of every annual physical, Dr. Stevens recommends that people who are pre-hypertensive, i.e. have an elevated range, or who already have high blood pressure, should be monitoring at least once a month to see if medications or lifestyle changes are making an impact. Keeping a diary will help identify patterns over time.
How to manage your blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke:
1. Exercise. “One of the most powerful ways to lower blood pressure is exercise. I have my patients measure their blood pressure before and after exercise and it’s motivating for them to see how much it changes after just 10-20 minutes,” says Dr. Stevens.
2. Maintain a healthy weight. Losing as little as 10-20 pounds can lower high blood pressure in overweight individuals.
3. Eat a nutritious diet that is low in sodium. The DASH Eating Plan (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) has been proven to lower high blood pressure. The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association recommends consuming less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. Note that the typical American consumes more than twice that amount of sodium, excluding salt added at the table.
4. Cut back on alcohol consumption. Limit your intake to no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day for men or 1 per day for women.
5. Learn about your family history. While you can’t change your parents, you can inquire about your family’s medical history and be aware of your personal risk factors.
The next time you are stuck for a gift idea for one of your loved ones, Dr. Stevens suggests considering a healthy gift basket that includes a home blood pressure cuff.
CONNECT THE DOTS
To learn how to monitor your blood pressure regularly and share your information with your healthcare provider, visit Heart360.org. Visit My Life Check, designed by the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association, to find out about the state of your heart health and what you can do to make lasting lifestyle improvements. Find additional resources about high blood pressure at the American Heart Association. Find out which food categories contribute the most to sodium consumption in this CDC Report.