Ask yourself, when was the last time you had your blood pressure taken? Do you remember the number? Do you know what it means?
A common misconception is that high blood pressure, or hypertension, mostly affects the elderly. The truth is high blood pressure affects all ages, with about 46 percent of all American adults at risk for major health problems because of high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). This is based on the new guidelines issued in November 2017 by the AHA, the American College of Cardiology and several other leading medical groups.
What Is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against artery walls. When that force is too high, it causes the heart and vessels to work harder and can damage them.
Blood pressure is measured with two numbers. Systolic pressure (the top number on the reading) is the pressure in your vessels when your heart beats (or contracts). Diastolic pressure (the bottom number on the reading) is the pressure in your vessels when your heart is between beats (or relaxes). The measuring unit is millimeters of mercury, or mmHg.
Why Is High Blood Pressure Called a “Silent Killer”?
The American Heart Association refers to high blood pressure as the “silent killer.” This is because you can’t feel when your blood pressure is high, and most of the time, you won’t show any symptoms. Hypertension can cause the arteries to become damaged, more easily clogged or susceptible to rupture. Two leading causes of death associated with hypertension are heart disease and stroke. Hypertension can also lead to heart failure. Hypertension is the second leading preventable cause of death, after smoking.
“Unless you are getting regular medical care through yearly checkup, or employer blood pressure and health screenings, you wouldn’t know,” said Jacquelyn Kulinski, MD, a Froedtert & MCW cardiologist. “The awful part is, when some people first find out they have hypertension, it may be at the time of a catastrophic event, when they end up in the hospital with a heart attack or stroke. This is why it is so important to be aware of your blood pressure.”
What Are the New Guidelines?
Previously, a reading of 140/80 or above was considered high. The new guidelines lower the threshold for a diagnosis of hypertension:
- Blood pressure between 120/80 and 129/80 is elevated
- Blood pressure of 130/80 or above is high
“Scientists incorporated data from many clinical trials into the new guidelines. However, data from a large, landmark clinical trial, the SPRINT trial, played an important role in these new changes,” Dr. Kulinski said. “It was a randomized trial that examined whether lower blood pressure goals would further reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Few trials stop early due to benefit, but the results were so clear, this one did.”
What Do the New Guidelines Mean?
The new guidelines are designed to help physicians and patients recognize and treat hypertension sooner.
“As we implement these guidelines, we’ll be seeing a new group of younger patients for treatment,” Dr. Kulinksi said. “The men affected under the age of 45 will triple and the number of women affected under the age of 45 will double.”
Dr. Kulinski said a small number of people will be prescribed medication to control their blood pressure, but the new guidelines emphasize lifestyle changes to keep blood pressure in check.
What Can You Do to Prevent Hypertension?
Dr. Kulinski said following a low-sodium diet, cutting back on alcohol, increasing exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can have dramatic effects on lowering blood pressure. Healthy individuals should check their blood pressure at least once a year.
You can record your own blood pressure at most retail pharmacies with an electronic blood pressure monitor. Per the guidelines, it is important to take readings on two different occasions to diagnose hypertension. Blood pressure is also monitored by a nurse or your primary care provider.
“Regular blood pressure screenings can prevent a multitude of problems associated with hypertension, including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and vision problems,” Dr. Kulinski said.