High blood pressure: Take steps to fend off the silent killer

Contributing ColumnistMay 19, 2014 

Dr. Sarah Little, Baptist Health

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A killer lurks, silently wreaking internal havoc. It eludes us, giving no warning, no clues until a strike. Often called the silent killer, hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects 75 million Americans, and one of every three adults in Kentucky.

Normal blood pressure enables blood to move through the body. The heart powerfully pumps blood through arteries supplying oxygen and nutrients to every organ and tissue. But what happens if the pressure gets too high? Excessive blood pressure, hypertension, damages the lining of arteries. Over time, damaged arteries weaken, scar and trap hazardous plaque. These plaques play a critical role in heart attacks and strokes. Other dangers include vision loss, dementia, erectile dysfunction, kidney failure, non-healing wounds and aneurysms.

Hypertension also can lead to heart failure. This means the heart does not work at its full potential. With each beat, the heart must push against more resistance, leaving blood supply to the body inadequate. The heart has to work harder to meet demands. This harder "workout" causes the heart muscle to thicken and stiffen, making it a less efficient pump. Patients with heart failure often experience difficulty breathing, cough, swelling and chronic fatigue. Nearly half of patients with heart failure die within five years of diagnosis.

The risk of developing hypertension naturally increases with age. Risk also increases with family history, sedentary lifestyle, a high salt diet and excessive alcohol intake. Less proven risk factors include stress, smoking and sleep apnea. Hypertension is generally diagnosed in adults when blood pressure is higher than 140/90.

What can you do to prevent and treat hypertension? First, decrease salt intake. If it comes from a box, bag, can, wrapper or drive-thru, eat less of it. Second, get moving. The ultimate goal is a total of 30 minutes of activity five days a week. Your blood pressure will improve as you reach a healthier weight through better nutrition and increased activity.

Take a stress inventory and draw healthy boundaries for yourself. Avoid tobacco smoke; if you need to quit smoking, ask your doctor for help. Limit alcohol intake to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. If prescribed medication, take it. Keep an open and honest relationship with your doctor. Remember, you are half of the team. You do not have to become a victim of hypertension. Make a positive change today.

Dr. Sarah Little, a family medicine specialist at Baptist Health Primary Care Hamburg, practices at Baptist Health Lexington.

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