Beat This Silent Killer

Everyone's blood pressure is probably a bit higher this year.

We're facing an unprecedented level of stress from the global pandemic. And many of us have stayed indoors, meaning we're moving and exercising less. Our hearts will ultimately pay the physical price for this, though.

That makes the recent announcement from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute even more important. A new study found that the awareness, treatment, and control of high blood pressure has dropped across the U.S.

In recent years, the U.S. has greatly improved prevention of heart disease. Our numbers dropped – we had fewer deaths and better treatment programs.

So it's upsetting that after a few years of increasing high blood pressure awareness and control, we've now back peddled. In other words, fewer people with high blood pressure know they have it and fewer know how to control it.

High blood pressure is a major health problem affecting about 45% of Americans. It has earned the nickname "Silent Killer" because symptoms often emerge too late to avoid dire (even fatal) health consequences. One of the first signs can be a stroke.

In fact, back in February, we highlighted high blood pressure awareness for Heart Health Month.

But given these new findings about the lack of awareness, treatment, and control, we thought we'd revisit the topic today. We're covering some of the most common questions we get about high blood pressure. If you have another question that isn't here, feel free to send it to us at [email protected].

What's considered "high" blood pressure? I was always just above 120/80 and healthy. But now that reading is "elevated"?

In 2017, the American Heart Association revised blood pressure guidelines. It was the first change in 14 years. At the time, we thought perhaps it was a grab for more prescription money... But we were happy to see that doctors pushed lifestyle changes first.

A reading of 120/80 was once considered normal blood pressure, but now it's more of a threshold between healthy and elevated. Here's what those blood-pressure levels look like:

What are the dangers of high blood pressure?

In the U.S., heart disease kills about 655,000 people each year. That's roughly 24% of all deaths. High blood pressure is one of the biggest underlying factors.

That's because if it takes more force to pump blood through your body, it's a sign you have excessive inflammation and dangerous blockages in your blood vessels. If one of those blockages breaks off, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

High blood pressure also puts more strain on your kidneys, leading to disease and failure. It's also linked to bone loss and vision problems.

Can I monitor my own blood pressure?

Yes! In fact, this is one of my top recommendations. Keeping an eye on your blood pressure is the simplest medical test you can do in the comfort of your own home.

You can buy a blood pressure monitor and take readings yourself. Just be sure not to use a fingertip or wrist model – these aren't accurate and may give wildly different readings in just a few minutes. You can also monitor your blood pressure by checking it in stores or pharmacies like Walmart and Walgreens.

Start a log of your blood-pressure readings. Write your test results down at the doctor's office. If you get a high-pressure reading, wait a few days and try it again.

How can I get an accurate reading?

I've seen folks with "white coat" syndrome. This happens when you feel anxious about being at the doctor's office, and your blood pressure goes up in response. A good way to fight this is to ask for two blood-pressure readings. Get one at the start of the visit and one at the end. Often times, you're more relaxed at the end of the visit and your pressure will drop.

Other tips for the best reading:

  • Sit with your feet on the floor.
  • Don't drink caffeine beforehand – depending on your tolerance, you may want to stop drinking it 30 minutes to a few hours before.
  • Take deep breaths and try to relax.
  • Don't talk.
  • Make sure you're hydrated. Chronic dehydration elevates blood pressure, and many folks (seniors in particular) are terrible at drinking enough water. Be sure to drink about six to eight glasses a day.

Is it still safe to exercise?

Yes, you can continue to exercise if you have high blood pressure. It's actually one of the best ways to lower your blood pressure. Get up and get moving... If you don't do that already, start today. Try for at least 30 minutes of activity, five days a week. I like to take a 30-minute walk every day to get my exercise in.

If your blood pressure is more than elevated and you have other risk factors for a heart attack – like family history, obesity, or being over the age of 65 – consider a less intense form of exercise. Some forms of strenuous exercise (like heavy weight lifting) could increase blood pressure too quickly and cause a heart attack. If you're in this group, ask your doctor about getting a stress test to see what you can handle safely.

What else can I do to lower my blood pressure?

Eat more vegetables (especially green, leafy veggies), fish, and whole foods. Cut out fatty foods and those I call "white killers" (white flour, white potatoes, white sugar). Some foods that reduce blood pressure are dark chocolate, eggs, wine, olive oil, and foods high in potassium.

Finally, do what I do and meditate regularly. This can quickly relieve sensations of stress. After a few months of regular meditation, research shows you can lower your blood pressure by at least 10 points without visiting a doctor or using medications. Try meditating before getting your blood pressure checked as well... and even during the test itself. The results will surprise you.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
September 29, 2020