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American Heart Month: Blood pressure control

February is American Heart Month. One of the major factors that affects heart health is high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is often called the silent killer. Without symptoms or warning signs, it can cause heart disease and stroke.

But there are many ways to control blood pressure and reduce your risk for developing heart disease.

Monitor your BP

Doctor taking patient's blood pressure

First, make sure you are visiting your primary care physician annually for a physical so heart disease risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose numbers can be checked.

We often see the "white coat effect" when we take your blood pressure at a doctor's visit. Anxiety about being at the doctor's office can sometimes raise BP levels. That's why we often recommend keeping a blood pressure log at home if we suspect you have elevated blood pressure.

Blood pressure cuffs are relatively inexpensive to buy and keep at home to track your levels. We usually recommend taking a reading twice a day to see how your blood pressure levels fluctuate over time.

What's normal?

Normal blood pressure is considered 120/80, or systolic less than 120 mmHg and diastolic less than 80 mmHg.

At risk and prehypertensive ranges are systolic 120-139 mmHg and diastolic 80-89 mmHg.

High blood pressure is 140/90 and up, or systolic 140 mmHg or higher and diastolic 90 mmHg or higher.

Increased risk

About 1 in 3 U.S. adults have high blood pressure, but only about half of them have it under control. Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the U.S.

Other risk factors include obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity, too much alcohol, and tobacco use.

Family history and genetics can also play a role in your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.

If you have known family history of heart disease, reduce your risk by mitigating the factors under your control: weight, diet, exercise, tobacco use and more.

Diabetes and your heart

Person checking insulin

About 6 out of every 10 people with diabetes also have high blood pressure. Having diabetes significantly increases your risk for heart disease, which is why diabetes control is important to your health for a number of reasons.

  • Monitor your blood sugar levels carefully

  • Take diabetes medications and insulin as recommended by your physician

  • Talk with your physician about your increased risk and what lifestyle changes you can make to control high blood pressure or reduce your risk for heart disease

  • Seek a dietitian consult for advice on a diet beneficial to controlling both diabetes and blood pressure

Taking medications

Many times, high blood pressure can be controlled with medication. However, a major cause of ineffective blood pressure control can be patients not taking medications at the right time or at the right amount.

If you struggle to afford your medications, understand what they are for, when you should take them, or have trouble accessing the pharmacy to get refills, talk to your physician or pharmacist. There are many assistance programs that help you take the right pills at the right time every time.

Prevent high blood pressure

Living a healthy lifestyle is one of the best ways to prevent high blood pressure or get it under control if you develop it.

A healthy lifestyle includes eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, quitting smoking and tobacco use, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol use.

Healthy salad

A heart-healthy diet includes foods low in sodium (salt) and fat. Our dietitian recommends the DASH diet. DASH stands for "dietary approaches to stop hypertension." The diet includes:

  • Portion control — Understanding food labels and serving sizes so you understand how much food you are consuming at one time.

  • Cutting back on sugar including sugary drinks and desserts with ingredients such as molasses, honey or syrup, which are all still treated like sugar in the body.

  • Smart snacking to include more fruits and vegetables in your diet and curb hunger.

  • Changing cooking techniques from frying foods to baking and grilling them, as well as swapping out the salt shaker for flavorful but lower-sodium seasonings.

Changing your diet may also help with weight management. If it does not and you need additional help with maintaining a healthy weight, consult your physician or a registered dietitian for healthy weight loss solutions.

Getting regular physical activity means following the guidelines of 150 minutes of activity per week. We suggest breaking that down into 30 minutes per day and focusing on the activities that fit your ability level. Getting your heart rate elevated is the most important aspect of meeting the recommended physical activity levels.

If you need help with tobacco cessation or alcohol use, consult your physician for tips on cutting back and eventually eliminating these from your lifestyle to reduce your risk of heart disease.

While February is American Heart Month, it is important to think about these risks for heart disease throughout the year. If you have questions, consult your physician.

If you have symptoms of heart disease, family history or other concerns about heart health, contact Heart and Vascular Clinics to set up an appointment with a cardiologist. Physician referral is not necessary.

Information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and American Heart Association.


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