The Truth about High Blood Pressure

By Medell Briggs-Malonson, MD, MPH, MSHS

2/20/2014, midnight

With February being Black History Month and Heart Awareness Month, it’s a good time to talk about something that uniquely impacts our community more than any other—high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), African Americans develop high blood pressure at younger ages than other groups in the U.S. We are also more likely to develop complications associated with high blood pressure, which include stroke, kidney disease, blindness, dementia, and heart disease.

It is important that our community understands the importance of this issue. First, let me provide some basic information. Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries that carry blood from the heart to other parts of the body. If a person has high blood pressure it means that the walls of the arteries are receiving too much pressure repeatedly, which can cause permanent damage to the arteries, heart disease and stroke.

Unlike many other health problems, people with high blood pressure often have little or no symptoms until the high blood pressure causes damage to the heart or other organs over time. This is why doctors often call high blood pressure the “silent killer.”

It is important to make sure we get our blood pressure checked consistently. When you go to your doctor, they will measure two numbers when checking your blood pressure. The top number is the systolic blood pressure, which is the force of blood in your arteries during a heartbeat. The bottom number is the diastolic blood pressure, which is the force of blood in your arteries between heartbeats. Each of these numbers are important and should be monitored. According to the AHA, blood pressure is grouped into the following categories:

Blood Pressure Systolic mm Hg (top number) Diastolic mm Hg (bottom number) Normal Less than 120 and Less than 80 Prehypertension 120-139 or 80-89 Hypertension (Stage 1) 140-159 or 90-99 Hypertension (Stage 2) 160 or higher or 100 or higher

As doctors, we know that high systolic or diastolic blood pressure can be avoided with healthy lifestyle behaviors, which include: • Eating a balanced diet with vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats • Reducing salt (sodium) in homemade or pre-packaged foods • Taking part in regular physical activities • Maintaining a healthy weight • Finding successful ways to manage stress • No smoking • Limiting alcoholic drinks • Taking your medications as prescribed by your doctor • Talking to your doctor about your concerns or questions

We also know that there are several common myths about high blood pressure and its treatment. These myths can cause people to feel discouraged or not take an active role to make behavior changes to prevent or treat high blood pressure. However, learning the truth about high blood pressure prevention and management can lead to a healthier, longer life.

Myth 1: “I feel great, so my high blood pressure is not a problem.”

Truth: Many people that have high blood pressure do not have any symptoms. Nearly 1,000 people die each day in the country because of medical problems caused by high blood pressure. High blood pressure can damage your heart, kidneys, and other organs over time. This damage may cause a heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure. It is important to maintain a normal blood pressure through healthy lifestyle behaviors even if you feel great. Your body will thank you for it.