Are you a salt shaker before a food taster?
Do you go out to eat at least a couple of times a week?
Are canned soups, chili, beans, and sauces part of your daily diet?
Do you eat cured meats, hot dogs, and cold cuts on a regular basis?
Do you have a parent or sibling being treated for high blood pressure?
Are you taking birth control or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory like Motrin or Aleve?
If you answer yes to some of these then there is a likely chance that you might be part of the one out of three Americans aged 20 or older with high blood pressure. There are no consistent symptoms to warn you that your blood pressure may be elevated but if it goes on too long it can damage your kidneys, brain, arteries and heart.
And it’s so simple to check your own blood pressure.
Hypertension and blood pressure
Hypertension or high blood pressure is an elevated blood pressure inside the arteries. The pressure is determined by using a sphygmomanometer that measures two pressures: the systolic and diastolic. The unit of measurement is millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). The systolic, or the top number of a blood pressure, represents the pressure against the arteries when the heart is contracting. The diastolic, or bottom number, measures the pressure inside the arteries when the heart is at rest between contractions.
A diagnosis of high blood pressure can be based on elevated systolic or diastolic blood pressure. According the AHA, for every 20 mm Hg rise in systolic pressure and 10 mm Hg in diastolic pressure, the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease or stroke doubles for people aged 40-89.
The difference between the systolic and diastolic blood pressure is called the pulse pressure. A blood pressure reading of 120/80 mm Hg has a pulse pressure of 40. A larger pulse pressure of 60 or more indicates stiffening of the aorta most commonly caused by hardening of the arteries from fatty deposits (atherosclerosis).
High blood pressure damages the body
Your arteries are the roadway system in your body. High blood pressure damages the inside of the arteries like the erosion that occurs around a brook after a downpour. The body tries to heal the damage from the high blood pressure, but in the end scarring and hardening of the walls of the arteries occurs over time.
Compound this with a diet high in saturated fat, and the arterial walls become even more rigid and narrowed with fatty deposits. Like a traffic jam, if there is a narrowing of an artery, less blood gets through. Eventually this leads to damage to the heart, the kidneys and the brain. It is also the leading cause of erectile dysfunction (ED).
American Heart Association Guidelines
The American Heart Association (AHA) breaks down blood pressure staging into the following categories: normal, prehypertensive, hypertension stage 1, then 2 based on blood pressure results.
Understand that blood pressure changes throughout the day, with activity, stress, caffeine and smoking. That’s why it is important to check your blood pressure at different times during the day. From my experience, the most accurate blood pressure readings were the ones that people took at home, in their own familiar environment, rather than the ones taken at the office unless the staff has the time to make sure you have been sitting for 5 minutes before checking, your arm is at the right level, you’re seated with feet flat on the floor and back supported, and you aren’t talking.
It is so easy to check your own blood pressure.
Checking your own blood pressure
Some blood pressure monitors are fully automatic – they will inflate and deflate with the touch of one button. I use one that is semi-automatic. It has a bulb that I squeeze to inflate the cuff, then it deflates on its own. Either one is effective, but the fully automatic one reduces the risk of operator error. The Omron BP786N got the best review and is only $64.49 on Amazon. The AHA does not recommend wrist monitors because they can be more finicky, so less accurate.
There are key points that you must follow to get a truly accurate reading.
- No caffeine or cigarettes for one hour before checking
- Sit for 5 minutes prior to checking
- Sit with your back supported and your feet flat on the ground (don’t cross legs)
- Do not talk while checking your blood pressure
- Make sure you are using the right size cuff. Too small will elevate your reading, too big will decrease it.
- Let your arm rest on a table surface and apply the cuff on a bare arm at the level of the heart with the blood monitor tube running down the inside of your arm.
Aim for 120/80 mm Hg
African Americans, the elderly and people with conditions like diabetes, heart disease and chronic kidney disease, according to the AHA, may be advised by their healthcare provider to have a lower blood pressure reading. For the rest of us, the goal should be 120/80 mm Hg.
It’s natural for blood pressure readings to occasionally go over 120/80. Life happens. It’s when you get consistent results over that number that warrant more vigilant checking and reporting to your healthcare provider. Like your 410k, it’s an investment in your health future. In a recent article from the AHA on the connection between hypertension and cognitive function they determined:
“Hypertension disrupts the structure and function of cerebral blood vessels, leads to ischemic damage of white matter regions critical for cognitive function, and may promote Alzheimer pathology. There is strong evidence of a deleterious influence of midlife hypertension on late-life cognitive function”
Having a father with dementia, this resonates with me.
The power of lifestyle change
There are a couple of patients I worked with that really stand out in my mind. There was a 65-year-old man who came to my diabetes class with a diagnosis of diabetes and hypertension. He took what he had heard to heart and started walking daily, eating more veggies, and reducing his intake of carbs. I remember him saying to me, “I eat so many vegetables now, I’m like a goat!” He proudly said to me privately, “and I don’t need that little blue pill anymore, my sex life is great!”
I remember another gentleman who participated in my weight management group who had been diagnosed with end stage chronic kidney disease and was waiting for a shunt placement for dialysis. He also had diabetes. He had made some extreme dietary changes, reading all labels for sodium and getting his sodium level down to less than 1500 mg daily. He had also reduced his intake of carbs, focusing more on whole grains and getting much more dietary fiber, and his kidney function improved enough, that his shunt placement had been put on hold.
Do yourself a favor
It’s so easy to check your blood pressure. It’s not about your health now, it’s about your future health. It’s about quality of life in your later years when you will have money and time and you’re going to want to have fun. High blood pressure is so easily treated with medicine, and certainly with lifestyle changes. Finding out you have high blood pressure could be just the impetus you need to re-prioritize your life and change the beat. That’s worth thumping about!