Ask a Health Care Professional – High Blood Pressure

By Diana Weber, M.D., Medical Director, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico

How prevalent is high blood pressure?

Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that they have high blood pressure because it is often asymptomatic. Untreated high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels and lead to heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, vision loss and many other problems. The good news is that high blood pressure can be treated with medications that can prevent complications from developing. 

What is high blood pressure?

Every time your heart beats it sends blood from the heart to the rest of your body through your body’s network of blood vessels. The pressure of the blood in your vessels when the heart contracts and pumps is systolic pressure, and this is the top number in your blood pressure reading. After each beat, the heart relaxes and rests; the pressure in the vessels at this time is called diastolic pressure, which is the bottom number in the blood pressure reading.

It is very important that you know your blood pressure so that you can find out if it is in the safe range. You can test your blood pressure at home with kits from a drug store. You may even qualify for a free kit through your insurance company. You should also have your blood pressure checked whenever you visit your doctor’s office.

The chart below from the American Heart Association outlines levels of blood pressure from normal to crisis levels. If you notice that your blood pressure is outside the normal range, you should track it and then discuss it with your physician. Studies have shown that people who track their blood pressure and regularly review it with their clinician can improve blood pressure control. You can download a blood pressure log at the American Heart Association website.

How can I avoid hypertension?

If you are at risk for high blood pressure due to family history or other conditions, you can take action to prevent developing it by making healthy lifestyle choices and adopting healthy habits. You should also check your blood pressure regularly to make sure it is not elevated.

What can you do to manage high blood pressure?

The same habits that can prevent you from developing high blood pressure can help you manage it if you are diagnosed. Once you receive the diagnosis of high blood pressure, managing it will require a lifetime commitment to good health. Getting your blood pressure under control can decrease your risk of dying from heart disease, which is still the number-one killer in the United States and around the world.

  • Pursue changes in your lifestyle that will help you control your blood pressure. These include:
    • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet that is low in salt. It is important to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, poultry and fish. Avoid saturated fats, sweets, sugary drinks and sodium.
      • The best way to consume less salt is to avoid prepared and packaged foods, which are high in sodium.
      • Some foods are unexpectedly high in sodium, including cheese, olives and some legumes.
      • Avoid adding salt to your food. Some people may salt their food out of habit, even before tasting it. Try to get used to foods that are less salty.
    • Limiting alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. Limiting your alcohol consumption can reduce your risk of getting hypertension.
    • Getting physically active. Exercise can lower your blood pressure, help control your weight, reduce stress and strengthen your heart. Aim for a goal of 150 minutes of exercise a week.
    • Stopping smoking. Each time you smoke, you temporarily increase your blood pressure. Smoking also leads to higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.
    • Lowering your stress. When you are anxious or stressed, your blood pressure increases. There are many resources available to help you learn habits that will decrease your stress.
    • Maintaining a healthy weight. Studies have shown that losing as little as five to 10 pounds can lower your blood pressure.
  • Work with your doctor to get your blood pressure under control. If you have consistently elevated blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe a medication. It is important to monitor your blood pressure at home so that you and your doctor can determine if the medication is working. You may need a change in dosage, or you may need to be on a combination of medications to lower your blood pressure.

When is high blood pressure a crisis?

If your blood pressure rises quickly or is higher than 180/120, this is considered a hypertensive crisis. Symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath, back pain, change in vision, numbness or weakness, or difficulty speaking. If untreated, this level of high blood pressure could result in a stroke, loss of consciousness, a heart attack, kidney failure or loss of vision. If your blood pressure is high and you are having any of these symptoms, you need to call 911.

Managing your blood pressure requires a commitment to caring for yourself for the rest of your life. Some of these steps may seem difficult to introduce into your life. However, by adopting healthful habits and taking proper medications you can prevent the development of complications such as kidney failure, vision loss, heart failure, stroke and sexual dysfunction. Get your blood pressure checked. Speak to your physician about your blood pressure, and take actions to prevent complications.

If you have a health question that you would like to be considered in Ask a Health Care Professional, please email [email protected] BCBSNM will select questions that may appear. Questions will not be personally answered. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of BCBSNM. This column is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical care.

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