If you’re concerned about your high blood pressure, you’re right to be. High blood pressure is called the silent killer for a reason.
Although high blood pressure typically doesn’t cause symptoms, it has a devastating effect on our health. High blood pressure is the primary or contributing cause of more than 1,300 deaths every day in the U.S. That’s someone dying almost every minute. It’s one of the leading causes of two of our most feared diseases, heart attack and stroke, and also increases the risk for dementia and kidney failure.
These numbers are frightening, but here is something even more striking.
Almost all the deaths, diseases, and disabilities caused by high blood pressure are preventable.
We just aren’t doing it.
The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Control Hypertension notes that only 1 in 4 people with high blood pressure have it under control.
As a cardiologist, I think this is unacceptable, so I have come up with the three most important things I want all my patients to know about lowering their blood pressure -- and possibly saving their lives.
1. Know your numbers.
If possible, check your blood pressure at home. Reliable automatic blood pressure cuffs (get the ones that wrap around your upper arm) are inexpensive and widely available.
Although it is tempting to rely on the blood pressure from your doctor’s visits, the reality is these blood pressures are more likely to be inaccurate than not. Regularly checking your blood pressure at home -- it’s critically important to sit quietly for 5 minutes before taking it -- will set you up to be your own blood pressure expert and help guide your doctor in the best treatment options for your blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about how often to check your blood pressure and when. Empty your bladder beforehand, and wait at least 30 minutes after exercise, smoking, or drinking caffeine.
2. Treat the cause of your high blood pressure.
If you had a continuously running kitchen faucet, you wouldn’t treat it by bringing a mop. You would turn the faucet off. The same logic applies when treating your blood pressure. If you have a cause, the best treatment will be eliminating the cause.
Common causes of high blood pressure include:
- Sedentary lifestyle -- Even modest levels of activity can lower your blood pressure and minimize medications.
- Eating highly processed food -- Particularly if high in sodium
- Being at an unhealthy weight -- Losing 5%-10% of your weight can lower your blood pressure as much or more than any medication.
- Excess alcohol -- More than a drink a day can increase your blood pressure.
- Untreated sleep apnea -- Experts estimate 30%-50% of people with high blood pressure have sleep apnea, most untreated. If you snore, don’t wake up feeling rested, or your partner notices you periodically stop breathing while asleep, ask your doctor if you should be checked for sleep apnea.
- Primary aldosteronism -- This is a hormone problem once thought to be quite rare, but recent research has shown it to be relatively common. If your blood pressure is not well controlled on several medications, ask your doctor if high aldosterone levels could be the cause.
Talk to your doctor about what may be causing your high blood pressure. Certainly genetics are important, but experts estimate half or more of high blood pressure is caused by factors we have control over.
3. Take your medications.
Nobody wants to take medications. I get it. And I’m a firm believer we all should be selective about any medicines we take (including supplements) and know the benefits and risks.
However, if you know your blood pressure is regularly over 130/80 -- even after doing all you can to treat high blood pressure causes -- not taking your blood pressure medications puts you at higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and early death. The first-line blood pressure medications are effective, inexpensive, and have a low risk for side effects. It is critically important to work with your doctor to have a strategy for treating your blood pressure that makes sense to you and controls your blood pressure.
Although high blood pressure often doesn’t cause symptoms, its effects on our health are potentially devastating. But you have more control than you may have realized to lower your risk for heart attack, stroke, and early death. By following the three steps above, you are well on your way to controlling your blood pressure -- and not becoming a statistic.