Take control of high blood pressure

August 20, 2010

Was your last blood pressure reading high? If it was 140/90 mm Hg or higher it was, and it's a sign that your heart is working harder than normal. Over time, uncontrolled high blood pressure, known medically as hypertension, triggers serious problems.

All that extra work makes your heart muscle grow larger and less efficient. Your arteries become less elastic, making them susceptible to arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and atherosclerosis (clogged arteries). Narrowed vessels hamper circulation, so tissues and organs may not get enough blood. If your kidneys don't get an adequate blood supply, hypertension may worsen since the kidneys help regulate blood pressure. Narrowed vessels also make it easier for clots to form. If a clot blocks blood flow to your heart or brain, a heart attack or stroke can occur.

To avoid the deadly effects of hypertension, follow the three steps outlined here:

Step 1: Get your blood pressure checked

Unlike other diseases that cause pain, swelling or high fevers, high blood pressure probably won't alert you to its presence. That's why it's so important to have your blood pressure checked periodically. The test used to measure blood pressure is simple and painless. In seconds it becomes clear to your healthcare provider how hard your heart has to work to pump the blood.

Step 2: Change dangerous habits

While high blood pressure can't be cured, it can be controlled by making certain changes in behavior and activities:

• Maintain a normal weight. Being overweight can contribute to high blood pressure because the heart has to work harder to pump blood through excess fatty tissue. In some cases, people who lose excess weight lower their blood pressure.

• Keep moving. Exercise will help you shed excess pounds by burning calories. In addition, some studies show that exercise itself can reduce blood pressure.

• Stop smoking. The nicotine in cigarettes causes blood pressure to rise and dramatically increases the risk of stroke. According to the American Heart Association, the benefits of quitting begin the day you give up cigarettes.

• Shake the salt habit. By causing the body to retain fluids, salt may contribute to high blood pressure. To reduce your salt intake, try using herbs and spices for seasoning. Avoid packaged snacks and processed meats, which are high in salt.

• Limit alcohol. Although one drink (an ounce and a half of hard liquor, four ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer) a day doesn't raise blood pressure, indulging in two or three drinks a day is associated with an elevated risk of hypertension.

Step 3: Take prescribed medications

When changes in lifestyle don't lower blood pressure, doctors may prescribe one or more antihypertensive drugs. Some of these medications work by removing excess fluid and salt in the bloodstream, others open up narrowed blood vessels and still others prevent the smallest blood vessels (arterioles) from narrowing.

To be effective, any prescribed medication must be taken regularly. People who stop taking their medications because they “feel fine” may ultimately suffer from rebound phenomenon, in which their blood pressure returns to a higher level than before.

Hypertension is a killer, but it can be treated and controlled. Don't be one of the many Americans who have this life-threatening condition but aren't aware of it. Get your blood pressure checked regularly.