2018 was a really tough year for my mom. She was hospitalized three times for the same issue -- her blood pressure was dangerously high.
The first time, she had a bad headache and noticed that her blood pressure was 170/95. We rushed her to the hospital, and she was admitted. After several rounds of medication, she was released with instructions to take two BP medicines. Two months later, she was back at the emergency room, and then again 6 months later. It was awful. Even as a doctor myself, I felt helpless and very worried about what could happen.
Hypertension or high blood pressure can lead to severe health problems including heart attacks and stroke. Aneurysms can also form, which means the blood vessel walls can weaken and bulge out -- and if they rupture, that could cause death. High blood pressure also puts a lot of stress on the heart, since it needs to pump harder, which can lead to heart failure. Also, kidneys can be affected, as well as vision, and even memory. Needless to say, my sisters and I were very worried about my mom. How could we change this trajectory?
My mom’s doctors had given her a stern talking to and suggested that she really needed to change her lifestyle if she wanted to avoid the serious problems that can come from high blood pressure. At first, it seemed like their message was falling on deaf ears.
But the third hospitalization scared my mom. She realized it was a terrible road that she was on and made a promise to herself to do all she could to change. It was not easy -- she is in her 70s and had gotten very used to a sedentary lifestyle -- getting up late, eating breakfast, and then sitting for hours on end watching cable news. She wasn’t exercising and often would stay up late at night watching shows. But after that last hospital visit, she decided to change.
It started with sleep. She regulated her bedtime and wake up time and stopped watching TV late into the night. It was hard at first, but slowly she got used to it. And she found that when she didn’t stay up till 2 a.m., it was easier to get up in the morning and feel energized to get on with her day.
The next thing she did was add exercise to her daily routine. She found a friend who lived close by, and they started walking together. They started with just 20 minutes but worked their way up to 45 minutes. She would call me and report that she walked almost 2 miles. I was so proud of her!
The third change she made was probably the most challenging: She started meditating every day. She had known about it from her upbringing in India and she read about its benefits on the internet. Meditation activates our parasympathetic system, which is the balancing system to our stressed-out state -- which is our sympathetic, or “fight or flight” response. Plenty of studies have shown that meditation can help blood pressure problems, and for my mom, it certainly seemed to. At her most recent visit, her doctor was baffled. “What did you do?” she asked, as she lowered the dose in the prescription for my mom’s blood pressure medicine again. My mom proudly explained her "three-point plan” with a smile.
Since then, things have been different for my mother. She hasn’t been back to the hospital for high blood pressure, and she is much happier too. She does stumble once in a while, of course. The other day she called me with a high blood pressure reading but immediately told me she was going to “fix it.” She had been too busy watching the news and had stumbled back into her old habits. She called me the next day after exercise and meditation and reported a much better BP.
Lifestyle makes a difference in many diseases. I am very grateful that it has for my mom.