High blood pressure carries many risks, but no symptoms

Contributing columnistMay 31, 2013 

By some estimates, high blood pressure is a condition that affects one in three adults in the U.S. In Kentucky, those numbers are even higher.

More than 36 percent of adults in Kentucky have been told they have high blood pressure, well above the national average of 28.7 percent. But what does that really mean in terms of our overall health?

Most people have heard of high blood pressure or its medical term, hypertension. It represents the force that the heart uses to pump blood to the body. When you hear blood pressure described as 120/80, the first number is the force of the blood pressure while the heart is working, or the systolic blood pressure, while the second, the diastolic, is the force at rest.

An ideal blood pressure is less than 120/80. There is a medical myth that the important number is the diastolic blood pressure. For most people, the first number, or systolic, is far more important, especially as we age.

High blood pressure usually has no signs or symptoms. It has been called "the silent killer." Uncontrolled blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke, as well as a major cause of heart attacks, heart failure and kidney failure. If your blood pressure is too high, seek treatment.

The first step in treatment of high blood pressure should always be a healthy lifestyle. If you are currently a smoker, this is the time to stop. If you are overweight, commit to maintaining a healthy weight. If you do not exercise, begin a regular fitness program.

Learn the basics of a heart healthy diet. This does not have to be complicated, despite all the confusing dietary advice you may get. Increase the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains you eat. Substitute leaner sources of protein for those high in fat. Cut out sugary foods, fried foods and highly refined foods such as white bread, white sugar and white flour. A healthy diet combined with a 30-minute walk four times a week can make a significant difference in your health.

Even with a good diet and fitness program, many people will still need medication prescribed by their doctor. There are now hundreds of options, and many of the best high blood pressure medications are very affordable in generic forms.

When you are prescribed a medication, talk to the doctor about potential side effects. If you experience any, contact your physician rather than just stopping the medication, which can be dangerous. There is almost always an alternative that you can afford and tolerate.

Between visits to your primary care physician, check your blood pressure at your pharmacy or supermarket. If you have never been diagnosed with high blood pressure, have your blood pressure checked at least a couple times each year. If your blood pressure is high and you are receiving treatment, check it weekly.

Dealing with your blood pressure is a lifetime commitment. The saying "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is never truer than with high blood pressure.

Dr. Jonathan Waltman is with Saint Joseph Cardiology Associates, part of KentuckyOne Health.

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