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Controlling high blood pressure

About 15 million Americans have high blood pressure and don’t know it. Normal blood pressure is in the range of 120/80. The 120 is the measure of systolic pressure, the amount of pressure your heart generates when pumping blood out through the arteries. The 80 is the measure of diastolic pressure, the amount of pressure in your arteries when your heart is at rest between beats. High blood pressure is defined as systolic pressure over 140 and diastolic pressure greater than 90. Over time, this elevated pressure in the arteries can cause serious damage to vital organs.

Unless it reaches extreme levels, high blood pressure usually doesn’t present symptoms, which could be one or more of the following: headache, blurry or double vision, nose bleed, chest or abdominal pain, excessive perspiration, shortness of breath, muscle cramps, weakness, dizziness, frequent urination, or a rapid or irregular heart beat. Even if you feel great and have never experienced these symptoms, you should have your blood pressure checked regularly.

It’s not always possible to find the cause of an individual’s high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. In one in 20 cases, doctors can identify an underlying cause such as medications, certain diseases or sleep apnea. This is called secondary hypertension. When no cause can be found, it is called primary hypertension. Both have been linked to these serious complications:

  • Heart disease, heart failure and heart attack;
  • Stroke caused by a blocked or ruptured blood vessel in the brain (high blood pressure is the most important risk factor for stroke);
  • Damage to the arteries, which can cause hardening and thickening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis), fat deposits in the lining of the arteries (atherosclerosis) or an enlarged, bulging blood vessel (aneurysm);
  • Weakened blood vessels in kidneys, causing kidney damage or failure;
  • Vision loss from damaged blood vessels in the eyes;
  • Cognitive decline and dementia, possibly leading to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • High blood pressure is easily detected with a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope. If your reading is high, you’ll be asked to come back for repeat checks. If you have three or more readings over 140/90, you will be diagnosed with hypertension.

Treatment for primary hypertension can include prescription medication and/or lifestyle changes. Often, blood pressure can be lowered through lifestyle changes alone. Lifestyle changes will also enhance the effectiveness of blood pressure medications. With secondary hypertension, your physician will also suggest ways to control the underlying problem, like diabetes and high cholesterol, that is causing the high blood pressure.

The safest way to prevent or treat high blood pressure is by making healthy, gradual changes in your lifestyle.

  • Lose weight if necessary and maintain a reasonable weight;
  • Add physical activity to your daily routine. Strive for 30 or more minutes of exercise most days of the week;
  • Add more grains, fruits and vegetables to your meals while cutting back on fatty, salty and processed foods;
  • If you drink alcohol, limit your intake to two drinks a day for men, one for women;
  • Don’t use any form of tobacco, including cigarettes, pipe or chewing tobacco, or cigars, and avoid second-hand smoke;
  • Limit caffeine, which can temporarily raise your blood pressure;
  • Identify your sources of stress and find ways to reduce their impact;
  • Learn deep breathing, meditation or relaxation techniques.

Without regular medical care, you may unknowingly have high blood pressure. Even if you feel perfectly healthy, hypertension can be silently and permanently damaging your body. Have your blood pressure checked regularly, either by your physician, with an automatic machine located at select pharmacies and stores, or through free screenings available in many communities.