It is easy to skip over the importance of checking your blood pressure, but now more than ever, you should be aware of your health in a pandemic.
Heart disease continues to be the world’s leading killer. High blood pressure, or hyperextension, is one of the most common health conditions for American adults. There are more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. each year linked to high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Globally, the heart-related deaths top 7 million.
High blood pressure is both preventable and treatable once diagnosed. Here are five reasons why you shouldn’t delay getting your blood pressure checked.
Diabetes & obesity increase risk
People with diabetes and obesity are more likely to develop high blood pressure. Smoking, physical inactivity, drinking too much alcohol, and consuming too much sodium can also increase risk. Family history plays a role, too, as does age.
“That’s because the blood vessels kind of stiffen in a way where they’re less flexible” as you age, says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., clinical associate professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and medical director at the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health. And that loss of elasticity drives up the pressure inside the vessels.
Even if you’ve had healthy blood pressure levels in the past, that is no reason to continue to monitor your health. it’s important to stay on top of your numbers as you get older. Once you hit middle age, your lifetime risk for developing high blood pressure is 90 percent, research shows.
The ‘new norm’
Before 2017, anything below 140/90 mm Hg was considered OK. Now, blood pressure at or above 130/80 mm Hg is deemed high, according to updated guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association.
Results from a large federal study called SPRINT are a major reason for the change in guidelines. Researchers found that adults age 50 and older who brought their systolic blood pressure below 120 mm Hg significantly lowered their risk for heart attack, heart failure or stroke by 25 percent, compared with adults with a systolic blood pressure of 140 mm Hg. They also slashed their risk of death by 27 percent.
“The most important message is that blood pressure control is important, that blood pressure control literally saves lives,” says Mahboob Rahman, M.D., professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University and the division chief of nephrology and hypertension at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. “If you work with your doctor to control your blood pressure well, you will be at lower risk of developing heart disease; you live longer, literally.”
The ‘silent killer’
High blood pressure (defined as 130/80 mm Hg or higher) rarely comes with symptoms, nicknamed, “the silent killer.” In fact, about 1 in 3 people who have hypertension don’t know it, according to the CDC.
The only way to be sure of your blood pressure is by checking the numbers. If you are 40 or older, you should be doing this at least once a year, federal guidelines state. A health care provider can measure it in the office; your local pharmacy may also have a blood pressure machine.
Better brain health
Better brain health is another potential benefit of managing high blood pressure. Researchers on the SPRINT MIND study found that participants who had their systolic blood pressure controlled to 120 mm Hg had a lower incidence of mild cognitive impairment, a precursor for dementia, compared with participants in the standard (140 mm Hg) group.
“With all that in mind — the lower rate of major adverse vascular events, the reduction in stroke, the reduction of mortality, the trend for better brain health — all of this is in favor that we should be doing a better job of treating older adults with high blood pressure,” says Erin Michos, M.D., a cardiologist and an associate professor in the Division of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Clinicians have a tendency to be more cautious when it comes to treating hypertension in older adults, who are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions and are at increased risk for falls, Michos says. (Dizziness and lightheadedness can be symptoms of blood pressure that’s too low.) But recent research shows that fear is a bit unfounded.
A 2016 sub-analysis of SPRINT data revealed that intensive blood pressure control in adults 75 and older did not result in more injurious falls. It did, however, result in significantly lower rates of cardiovascular events and death.
Make a plan & pick a goal
Even making gradual lifestyle adjustments can have an impact on your blood pressure. For example, a small reduction in sodium can cause your blood pressure to drop by about 5 or 6 points. And a 2-pound weight loss can shave about 1 point from your readings, according to the Mayo Clinic. Cut out the salt and start feeling better! In addition, some medication can also help.
Next, pick a goal. Figure out your target blood pressure and work with your doctor to get there. “If you do well at 140 and you want to go down to 130, OK. Do it. But let’s just stop living with blood pressure that’s not well controlled. Let’s just not do that anymore,” advised Cora Lewis, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.