Tag Archives: high blood pressure

Know Your (New) BP Numbers. Then take steps to lower them.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, has been in the news recently. Hypertension has long been known to be a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, so diagnosing and treating high blood pressure has always been important. A new report has changed the blood pressure classifications to reflect research suggesting that what was previously considered “too high” is really too high. Given the new report, this is a good time to review the diagnosis, health effects, and treatment of high blood pressure. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Hypertension is called the “silent killer” because it often has no symptoms but contributes to many heart attacks and strokes and is associated with type 2 diabetes, heart failure, and kidney disease. Since the risk of these conditions is related to the severity and how long your blood pressure has been high, blood pressure should be measured regularly.

 

The new guidelines lower the blood pressure at which more aggressive treatment is recommended for some patients who are at high risk for a heart attack or stroke. The guidelines also change the classifications of blood pressure, which may mean your doctor could start treatment sooner.

 

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.

According to the new guidelines, normal blood pressure is less than 120 mmHg systolic and less than 80 mmHg diastolic. If your blood pressure is between 120–129 mmHg systolic and 80–89 mmHg diastolic, you have elevated blood pressure. Stage 1 hypertension is 130–139 mmHg systolic or 80–89 mmHg diastolic and stage 2 hypertension is a blood pressure 140/90 and higher.

What is now called elevated BP and stage 1 hypertension used to be called “prehypertension.” The new classification should draw attention to the fact that the blood pressure is too high and prompt doctors and patients to begin treatment.

 

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 many effective (and affordable) 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.

 

Keep it down

The aim, of course, isn’t simply to reduce your blood pressure using medications. 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 modestly lower blood pressure and lead to weight loss.

Since blood pressure tends to increase with age, even if you have normal blood pressure now 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.


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Your Heart Month action plan

Heart disease, sometimes called coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States. Despite improvements in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, it is still responsible for nearly 600,000 deaths each year, mostly from heart attacks. Millions more are at increased risk because of certain biological and behavioral risk factors. Some of these risk factors cannot be changed, such as age, sex, and family history, while others can be altered to reduce risk. These modifiable risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity. You can learn much more about heart disease from the American Heart Association.

Since February is Heart Month, this is an ideal time to assess your own risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your heart health. If you aren’t sure where to begin, my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week includes four simple steps you can take to assess and lower your risk for heart disease. If you aren’t sure where to begin, these four steps should be a good start to prevent and treat heart disease.

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Here is your Heart Month action plan:

  1. Assess your risk. If you haven’t done so recently, you should see your doctor to have your risk factors evaluated. This includes tests for blood glucose and blood lipids (including total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol and triglycerides), measurement of your blood pressure and body weight, and an assessment of other health factors such as your family history, whether you smoke, and your level of physical activity. You may be able to find a health fair or other event in the community at which you can have many of these measurements made, but only your doctor can help you determine the best course of treatment given your personal risk profile.
  1. Be active everyday. The benefits of as little as 30 minutes per day physical activity are well-established and impact heart disease risk in a multitude of ways. Physical activity helps with weight control, lowers blood pressure, improves blood lipids, and prevents and treats diabetes. Think of this as a great health “deal.” By modifying one risk factor—inactivity—you can also promote beneficial changes in four others—obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. There is no other treatment, drugs included, that can have such a broad impact on reducing heart disease risk!
  1. Improve your diet. If you are like most Americans, your diet is too high in unhealthy fats, salt, and added sugar and lacking adequate whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fiber. This type of diet is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. All of these conditions are risk factors for heart disease, so you may literally be eating your way to a heart attack. Changing what you eat to include more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat meat and dairy and minimizing added sugars, fat, and processed foods can help you lose weight and prevent or treat high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
  1. Quit smoking. There is no way around this one—quit! Ask your doctor about prescription medications that can make quitting easier. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of patches, gum, and lozenges can help manage cravings and are available over the counter. Ultimately, though, quitting smoking is a behavior change that takes motivation, willpower, and time. But it is worth it—your risk of heart attack goes down within days and can drop 50–70% within five years after quitting.

The potential impact of these steps is great. Knowing which risk factors are most concerning can help you and your doctor make the most effective treatment decisions. Even modest changes in diet and activity can lead to improvements in risk factors and reduced heart attack risk. The best news is that you can start today by putting down your next cigarette, going for a walk, and eating a healthier dinner. Your heart will be glad you did.


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Driving yourself to the doctor.

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend in your car? On average, Americans face a 50-minute round-trip drive each day just for their jobs, and nearly thee-quarters of commuters drive alone. In suburban and metropolitan areas the commute can be much longer. Even in Aiken the average commute time is about 23 minutes. When you include driving to work, taking the kids to school, and doing errands, sitting in a car can easily account for an hour or more each day.

You can find the average commute time in your area using this really cool interactive map from WNYC.

You are probably very aware of the time you spend in the car. What you may not know is that sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. This is the conclusion of several studies that examined the relationship between commuting time and indicators of health. One of these studies suggests that vehicle miles traveled is a strong predictor of obesity. In another study, commuting a greater distance was associated with lower levels of physical activity and fitness as well as a higher waist circumference and blood pressure.

This makes sense because spending more time sitting in your car means you have less time to dedicate to being physically active, something we know is good for your health. Add to that the fact that driving is sedentary. There is accumulating evidence that spending more time sitting in the car, at work, or at home is a predictor of poor health, regardless of how active you are the rest of the day.

It gets worse. Many people eat in their cars during long commutes. Much of the time these “meals” consist of fast food and other prepackaged foods—not many people eat salads while they drive! Since these foods are typically of questionable nutritional quality and high in calories, this alone can contribute to obesity and poor health. The combination of inactivity and eating behind the wheel can easily shift the balance toward weight gain. Plus, eating while you drive is dangerous!

Beyond the direct impact on health through eating and activity behaviors, commuting alone in a car is a form of social isolation. Research suggests that this can lead to depression, itself an important factor leading to poor health.

The problems with long commute times are well established and easy to appreciate. Unfortunately, the solutions are not. Most people can’t move in order to have a shorter commute and relying on public transportation isn’t practical or even possible for many people, especially in our area. Replacing driving a car with active modes of transportation simply isn’t practical.

Aside from the time requirement—imagine how long a 25 minute drive would take on a bike or on foot!—our environment doesn’t adequately support active travel. Being able to walk or bike requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Even public transportation increases activity over driving and enhances social connections. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities, which were built to support cars, not people.

But we can take steps to undo some of the damage that so much driving can cause. Making activity at other times of the day a priority is a good start. This could include exercise at the gym, going for a walk, or even yard work or housework. When possible, replace car trips with walking or biking. Planning these activities with others can strengthen social connections as well as improve health and fitness. Finally, act as an advocate for changes in the community that will make active transportation more realistic.

Numbers you need to know to prevent and treat heart disease.

February is American Heart Month, an ideal time to assess your risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your health. When it comes to heart disease, there are several numbers, including your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose, you (or your doctor) may be monitoring. But there is another set of numbers that are equally important for preventing and treating heart disease that you may not be familiar with: 0, 5, 10, 25, and 30.

What these numbers mean and why they are so important is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

Blood test results

0 is for no smoking. Cigarette smoking more than doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke, is by far the leading cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases, and is responsible for over 400,000 deaths per year. If you smoke, quitting now is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of gum, lozenges, and patches as well as prescription medications can help, but quitting really does require serious dedication. It’s well worth the effort and some benefits of quitting can be realized almost immediately.

5 is for eating five fruits and vegetables each day. A healthy diet is one important aspect of good health. While there is no one single measure of a healthy diet, adequate fruit and vegetable consumption is widely considered to be essential for good health. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. At a minimum, you should eat five servings per day with an emphasis of fresh fruits and vegetables. Your real goal should be to include fruits and vegetables in all meals and snacks, but five servings per day is a good start.

10 is for 10,000 steps per day. Regular physical activity is essential for good health. Almost any activity counts, and a good goal is to be as active as possible throughout the day. You can track your physical activity using a pedometer (step counter) or an app on your phone. A target of 10,000 steps per day is a commonly cited goal, but you should try to take as many steps as possible. You can do this by minimizing the time you spend sitting, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking instead of driving when possible. More steps are better, even if you don’t get to 10,000.

25 is for maintaining a healthy body weight, or a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25. The BMI is a measure of weight relative to height. A BMI of 18–25 is considered healthy, 25–29 is considered overweight, and 30 and higher is considered obese. The risk of health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers goes up with BMI, so maintaining a healthy body weight is good for your health. If you are overweight you should lose weight, even if you don’t achieve a BMI of less than 25.

30 is for 30 minutes of exercise per day. In addition to being as active as possible throughout the day, you should dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes for exercise or other activity. Considerable research shows that as little as 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity leads to improved fitness and health with greater benefits coming from longer duration or higher intensity activity. This can include exercise—a brisk walk or jog, lifting weights, or other aerobic exercise—as well as other activities like housework and yard work. Your goal should be to sit as little as possible, move as much as possible, and make time each day to be active.

What parents and schools can do to make sure kids are ready to learn

Physical activity and good nutrition have long been recognized as essential for promoting good health in adults and children. More and more research suggests that these health behaviors can have beneficial effects beyond health, including how we perform both physically and mentally. The emphasis here is on children in school, but it applies to adults, too.

Unfortunately, taking time for activity and good nutrition is seen as a luxury or a distraction to learning in most schools. Far from being a distraction, physical activity and healthy eating are prerequisites for learning and academic achievement. In short, these often ignored factors can help make sure children are ready to learn.

Regular physical activity is essential for good health, growth, and physical development, including maintaining a healthy body weight. This last point is important given the epidemic of childhood obesity and related health problems, including “adult” diseases like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Current recommendations call for all children to get at least 60 minutes of activity per day. This can include activity at school from physical education classes, recess, other classroom activities as well as games, sports, and unstructured play. Unfortunately, most kids don’t get nearly enough activity at school and many aren’t active at home.

Physical activity is also important for academic performance. Research shows that children who participated in an activity program had better executive control, which includes resisting distractions and maintaining focus, improved memory, and doing better switching between tasks. This is particularly relevant for children with ADHD, but the effects can be seen in all kids. These positive changes can maximize class time and lead to improvements in academic achievement, especially math and reading test scores.

Similarly, good nutrition is also essential for health, growth, development, and academic achievement. Eating a good breakfast improves cognitive function, alertness, and academic performance in students of all ages. It should be no surprise, then, that skipping breakfast impairs cognitive function and academic achievement. This is one reason that many schools offer breakfast to start the day or include a healthy mid-morning snack.

The same is true for lunch, too. A good lunch can support learning in the afternoon and gives a chance to teach kids about good nutrition by providing healthy food that, unfortunately, many children may not get at home.

Schools have a unique opportunity to use physical activity and nutrition to promote health, support academic achievement, and teach healthy habits. Since formal nutrition education is missing from most curriculums and PE programs are being reduced or cut completely, schools must be creative to incorporate these essential subjects.

A way around this problem is to make sure children get a chance to move and play, ideally multiple times during the day. This is what recess is for. Teachers can also incorporate activity and nutrition education in the classroom and get away from the idea that kids must be sitting still to learn. As research shows, quite the opposite is true!

Schools are often hesitant to teach about nutrition and activity because it is thought of as a responsibility of parents, not schools. But most parents don’t teach these good habits at home, which affects what happens at school. Despite the obvious benefits, it will probably take years of effort to change this view.

In the meantime, parents can encourage their kids to be active and make smarter food choices at home so they are ready to learn in school.

When it comes to your health, don’t take the high road.

When faced with challenging moral or ethical situations we are advised to do what is right, even if it is more difficult. “Taking the high road” is often synonymous with living a better life. When it comes to your health, though, taking the high road may lead you on a path to chronic disease, disability, and early death.

The high road I am referring to in this case has nothing to do with ethical decisions. It has to do with test results, specifically measurements your doctor makes of your weight and blood pressure as well as blood tests of cholesterol and glucose. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

These tests are indicators of your current health as well as risks to your health in the future. The results of these measures are used to classify you as having “normal” or “high” blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood cholesterol. For example, a fasting blood glucose between 70–100 mg/dl is normal but you are considered to have diabetes if your result is 126 mg/dl or higher.

Even if your blood glucose is above normal (100–125 mg/dl) but isn’t high enough for you to be classified as diabetic, it may still be too high. This condition is called prediabetes because without intervention most people in this category will eventually develop diabetes.

Considering that diabetes is a leading cause of heart attacks, blindness, and amputations, preventing your blood glucose from increasing should be a high priority.

The same is true for other measurements including blood pressure and body mass index (BMI), the most common assessment of obesity. Even if you aren’t considered obese or don’t have hypertension, the higher your BMI or blood pressure becomes puts you at increased risk of the condition getting worse over time or leading to other more serious health problems.

In fact, even within the normal range, a higher value is associated with increased health risks. Take blood cholesterol for example, where the risk of heart disease increases at total cholesterol levels above 150 mg/dl, well within the “normal” range of less than 200 mg/dl. At even higher levels, total cholesterol is associated with a much greater risk.

Clearly, having a high BMI, blood pressure, blood glucose, or cholesterol is concerning. But it is important not to be fooled into thinking that a value that is technically below the diagnostic criteria for “abnormal” is necessarily “normal.” For many, even slightly elevated levels of these variables now are likely to get worse over time.

The good news is that modest lifestyle changes including weight loss, regular moderate physical activity, and changes to what you eat can prevent conditions like prediabetes and prehypertension from getting worse. This can be achieved through losing as little as 10 pounds, walking or doing other activity for 30 minutes per day, and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.

To be sure, taking the “high road” with BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose, even if your test results are within the normal range, can put you at increased health risk. For these conditions, you are far better off taking the low road and making the necessary lifestyle changes to stay there.

When normal isn’t normal.

The typical American is overweight, doesn’t get enough exercise, eats too few vegetables and fruits, too much sugar, and too many calories. Unfortunately, we have come to consider this combination as “normal.” While this situation may be common, it is definitely not normal. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

For most measures of health, a normal value is consistent with good health. A “normal” blood pressure is in a range that is associated with a low risk of stroke, for example. Someone with LDL (bad) cholesterol that is considered “above normal” has a greater risk of heart attack than a person with a normal LDL value.

But for many health indicators, having a normal value is not the norm. According to the most recent recommendations, a normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg. However, nearly 60% of adults have a blood pressure that is above normal, meaning they have hypertension or prehypertension.

A person who has a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range, between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2, is considered to be at a healthy body weight. But two-thirds of adults are overweight, with a BMI above the normal range. Similarly, participating in regular exercise should be considered normal. But it’s not, since fewer than half of adults meet minimum recommendations for physical activity.

The problem is that the term “normal” is frequently used to refer to what is typical, rather than what is healthy. Obesity is so common that a person who is at a healthy weight may look out-of-place. So many people look for ways to avoid physical activity that a person who walks instead of drives is considered abnormal. The person who comes away from a buffet with a less-than-full plate or who has a salad for dinner often gets strange looks. One of the reasons that people get noticed for doing these things is because they stand out from the crowd.

In reality, though, many of the health behaviors we consider to be abnormal—regular exercise, a healthy diet, or a lean physique—are, historically, completely normal. Until relatively recently, most everyone was active much of the day and spent little time being sedentary. Likewise, the consumption of the processed foods that are such a big part of our current diet was rare even a few decades ago.

It is likely that, by considering unhealthy behaviors to be normal, we have created a situation that discourages people from adopting a healthy lifestyle. As anyone who has tried to change their health habits knows, it can be a challenge, especially if everyone else maintains their typical eating and activity pattern. It’s not easy to be “the one” who only eats healthy food or who takes time to exercise every day.

Maybe we need to redefine normal health behaviors to reflect what is healthy rather than what is most common. When walking or biking rather than driving becomes the norm there will be greater incentive to provide safe places for pedestrians and cyclists to travel. When a healthy diet is considered normal it is more likely that restaurants will offer more nutritious options.

In the end, we would all benefit from changing our definition of normal. And a normal diet and activity pattern will go a long way to promoting a normal BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol.