Back to articles

Take Steps to Avoid the ‘Silent Killer’

Daniel Takeda, MD News

At some point during this busy back-to-school time, you may have thought to yourself, “My blood pressure must be through the roof!” It’s a phrase we commonly toss out when we’re feeling stressed—but do you really know what your blood pressure is?

Unfortunately, we often give high blood pressure very little thought or attention because it typically doesn’t cause pain or discomfort in the way a toothache, the flu or a back injury does. Yet high blood pressure puts us at great risk for serious, chronic (ongoing) health issues.

That is why high blood pressure is often referred to as the "silent killer." There are usually no symptoms until a potentially life-threatening event occurs, such as heart attack or stroke. And while many people associate high blood pressure risks with the heart or the brain, the reality is that severe damage can occur throughout the body, including the kidneys, eyes, legs, intestines and so forth.

There are two components to blood pressure measurement. The first, called systolic, represents the amount of pressure in your arteries when the heart contracts during a heartbeat. The second, called diastolic, is a measure of pressure when the heart is at rest between beats. These are usually written as “systolic/diastolic,” such as 120/80. (A memory cue is that “diastolic” and “down” both begin with a “d.”)

A healthy blood pressure reading is below 120/80. A person with a systolic reading of 140 or above or a diastolic reading of 90 or above is considered to have high blood pressure, and people in between the healthy and high ranges are considered pre-hypertensive—meaning they are at risk for developing high blood pressure.

Keep in mind that blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day and according to various circumstances, so these numbers represent your average blood pressure reading over time. Also, it is important to note that if you have a chronic condition such as diabetes or chronic kidney disease, your physician may recommend a different target blood pressure.

According to the American Heart Association, about 80 million adults in the U.S have been diagnosed with high blood pressure. That is almost 1/3 of the adult population, so blood pressure is clearly something you should focus on personally. It’s critically important to know what your blood pressure is and to manage it on a daily basis.

The best place to start is a visit with your primary care physician. If you haven’t been for a while, having a discussion about your blood pressure is a good reason to go. If your blood pressure is borderline or high, your doctor will be able to explain your options for getting it back to a healthy level.

Whether your blood pressure is healthy, borderline or high, you can start taking steps today to ensure that it stays in check throughout your lifetime. The recommendations will probably sound familiar, because they are the same as those for achieving an overall healthy lifestyle: Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and sparse on red meat, fat and sugar; exercise regularly; and take steps to avoid or reduce the impact of stressful situations.

You may also want to measure and track your blood pressure at home. Talk with your physician about whether this would be helpful in your situation. He or she can recommend a quality home blood pressure monitor. Keep in mind that home blood pressure monitors and those found as standalone kiosks in pharmacies and other locations should not replace regular monitoring by your physician.

The Internet has many helpful resources to learn more about blood pressure and how to keep yours in check. Just be sure you’re getting information from reputable sources.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, for instance, has an excellent section on healthy eating to improve your blood pressure. Learn more about their DASH eating plan by going to www.nhlbi.nih.gov then entering “dash” in the search box.

You’ll also find an enormous amount of helpful information on the American Heart Association website. Go to heart.org and search “blood pressure.” The heart association also sponsors an online support group for those with high blood pressure. Go to supportnetwork.heart.org and click on “Chronic Conditions.”

Daniel Takeda, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician and a fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice. He is a member of Adventist Health Physicians Network and is on the Simi Valley Hospital medical staff.