Feeling the pressure

May is National High Blood Pressure Education Month, a time to raise awareness about the diagnosis, health effects, and treatment of high blood pressure, also called hypertension. This is important because approximately 70 million U.S. adults have hypertension. Of those, almost 40% don’t even know it, which means they are not seeking treatment.

Another 30% have prehypertension, blood pressure that is above normal but does not meet the criteria for hypertension. Prehypertension is appropriately named since most people with this diagnosis eventually develop hypertension—unless they take steps to lower their blood pressure.

High blood pressure is a contributing factor to many heart attacks and strokes and is associated with type 2 diabetes, heart failure, and kidney disease. Hypertension is called the “silent killer” because it often has no symptoms yet it leads to serious health outcomes.

Here are some steps to help you celebrate National High Blood Pressure Education Month:

1. Know your numbers

Your blood pressure includes two numbers, both measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The top number, systolic, is the pressure in your arteries while your heart is contracting and pumping blood. The bottom number is the diastolic pressure, which occurs between beats when the heart is relaxed. Both numbers are important for assessing your risk of health problems.

Normal blood pressure is less than 120 mmHg systolic and less than 80 mmHg diastolic. Blood pressure that is 140 mmHg and higher or 90 mmHg and higher is considered hypertension. If your blood pressure is between 120–139 mmHg systolic or 80–89 mmHg diastolic, you have prehypertension.

2. Get it down

If your blood pressure is above normal you should take treatment seriously. Lifestyle changes including eating a healthy diet, regular physical activity, weight control, and quitting smoking are all effective and essential for lowering blood pressure.

There are also several good medications that your doctor can prescribe to lower your blood pressure. Take them as directed and don’t forget that they are designed to work with healthy lifestyle habits.

3. Keep it down

The aim, of course, isn’t simply to reduce your blood pressure using drugs. Your ultimate goal should be to keep your blood pressure low without relying on medications, all of which have at least some negative side effects.

The best way to maintain a normal blood pressure is through daily exercise, eating a healthy diet, losing weight if you are overweight, and quitting smoking. A good place to start is the DASH diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber and low in sodium and added sugar.

The DASH diet has been shown to lower blood pressure and lead to weight loss. It is also consistent with recommendations to prevent and treat many other health problems, including diabetes and high cholesterol.

Since blood pressure tends to increase with age, even if you have normal blood pressure you should take steps to prevent high blood pressure in the future. Adopting a lifestyle that includes daily physical activity, healthy eating habits, managing stress, and not smoking is essential for preventing high blood pressure.

Additionally, these same health habits will help you prevent most other chronic disease including diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers. It turns out that celebrating National High Blood Pressure Education Month can also help you celebrate good health in general.

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