Every year, a staggering50,000 deaths are caused by high blood pressure. But because it has few symptoms most of us have no idea we could be affected.
We're all well aware that high blood pressure or hypertension is something we should worry about. But for three out of 10 of you reading this article, the reality is far more serious. You could already have high enough blood pressure to put you at very real risk of potentially fatal conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
The tragedy according to the experts, is that lack of awareness means many people are suffering and dying needlessly 'If everyone's blood pressure was controlled - and with the right treatment it can be in nearly every case - we could prevent around 100,000 strokes and heart attacks and 50,000 deaths every year,' says Graham MacGregor, Professor of CardiovascularMedicine at St. George’s Hospital and Chairman of the Blood Pressure Association.
A major World Health Organisation study found half of all cardiovascular diseases are caused by high blood pressure. If you ask the average woman what her blood pressure reading is, however, she probably won't have the faintest idea .If you know yours, you should congratulate yourself as you're in the minority. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, almost three-quarters of the people interviewed had no idea what their blood pressure level was, and only a scant 16% knew what a healthy reading should be.
High blood pressure rarely has any external symptoms, all the damage is internal, as the force of blood pumping at high pressure through your arteries strains your heart and weakens your blood vessels. The result is damaged, clogged arteries, which increases your risk of heart and kidney disease and makes you six times more likely to have a stroke or heart failure as your heart struggles to pump adequate supplies of oxygenated blood around the body.
On the face of it, controlling your blood pressure should be simple. Regular checks to identify those who have high or borderline pressure, together with medication or lifestyle changes to lower it, would be effective for most of us. Yet an incredible 80% of those with high blood pressure aren't being treated for it. 'The reasons are complex,' says Professor MacGregor 'Some haven't been tested, as there's no national screening programme . Some are tested and aren't concerned enough to make lifestyle changes or take any medication. Others aren't being given the correct medication.'
While some GPs certainly need to be more alert to the dangers of high pressure. Professor MacGregor believes the onusis really on us. “We have to face the fact that half of us are going to have a stroke or heart attack.’, he says. “It’s time individuals took more responsibility for their own blood pressure. The only way you’ll know if it’s high or not is to have it measured. So make an appointment with your doctor and get it checked. Find out what the figures mean, and if your blood pressure is on the high side, talk to your doctor about ways to lower it.
Assess your risk
Hypertension rarely has any symptoms and anyone can be at risk, but some groups are more susceptible and should be extra vigilant. Your risk is higher if;
· You have a family history of high blood pressure, strokes or heart attacks
· You’re overweight, eat too much salt, take little exercise, drink too much alcohol, and have a low intake of fruit and vegetables
· You have diabetes, kidney disease or heart disease
· You’re black or South Asian. Research suggests that black people are more sensitive to salt in the diet and have a higher risk of stroke, while South Asians have a higher risk of diabetes and heart attack
· When checked, your blood pressure was at the higher end of the normal range.
And if your blood pressure is still high?
For some people lifestyle changes will be enough to reduce blood pressure to a safe level, but others will need drugs that help open up the blood vessels, making it easier for the heart to function effectively or work through the brain to lower the body’s blood pressure. Once you start medication, you’ll be taking it for life, but there’s strong evidence that, as long as your blood pressure is well controlled, it will reduce your risk of stroke, heart attacks and heart failure.
DO YOU NEED TO WORRY?
Blood pressure - the force of blood against the artery walls - is measured in millimetres of mercury (mm Hg) and recorded as two numbers: the systolic pressure (the pressure as the heart beats) over the diastolic pressure (as the heart relaxes between beats). Both numbers are important, but research has shown that it's the systolic pressure that reflects the damage to the arteries.
Your blood pressure is considered to be high if it's at this level.
If your blood pressure is in the normal range - around 120/80 or below - you should have it checked every three or four years.
You should be concerned if your blood pressure is in the upper range of normal -130/85. Even at this level, your risk of a stroke or heart attack increases threefold, and the Blood Pressure Association recommends that you have your pressure checked annually. If you have hypertension, your doctor will check it more frequently.
KEY WAYS TO PROTECT YOURSELF
You can't change your genes but you can change your lifestyle, and that alone could be enough to keep your blood pressure down. Even if it's normal, you should take steps to keep it that way. Blood pressure tends to rise with age. 'Not as an inevitable result of getting older,' says Professor MacGregor, 'but almost entirely as the result of eating an unhealthy, salt-laden diet.'
Eat less salt
Research shows that too much salt causes a rise in blood pressure, and the more salt you eat, the higher the rise. A US study found that cutting salt by a third reduced blood pressure in people with both high and normal blood pressure. Most of us eat twice as much salt as we need - around 10-12g daily, when we should be aiming for 5-6g or less. So replace salt in cooking with herbs and spices for flavour and avoid processed food, which accounts for 75% of the salt in our diet . Other high-salt food includes bread, some breakfast cereals, processed meat such as sausages and bacon, soups, ready-prepared meals and takeaways. Check labels for the sodium or salt content, or for other sodium molecules like monosodium glutamate or sodium bicarbonate. To work out the sodium content, divide the salt content by two and a half, low sodium is 0 3g per 100g or under.
Become more active
Research shows that exercise can prevent or delay the development of hypertension and reduce high blood pressure. As well as lowering blood pressure, exercise will help to strengthen your heart, reduce levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and help boost beneficial HDL cholesterol.