Under Pressure: Two numbers that can help save your life

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Do you know your blood pressure? The numbers from a blood pressure reading measure the pressure on the arteries when the heart contracts (that’s the systolic, or top number) and when the heart is relaxed (the diastolic, or bottom number). Checking once a month is fine for people under the age of 40 who have a history of normal blood pressure, but those over 40 should check their pressure once a week. Keep this statistic in mind: 90 percent of people who have had normal readings through age 55 will develop high blood pressure.

“Basically, we’ll all have high blood pressure eventually,” says Greg Kan-llakan, supervisor of prevention and cardiopulmonary rehabilitation at Memorial Medical Clinic in Springfield, Ill.

If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, Kanllakan suggests checking it every other day. People with uncontrolled high blood pressure should check it daily at different times. Readings vary by time of day and situation (being at work versus home, stress level, recent exertion). Once you’ve checked your blood pressure, you should also chart it. Keeping a log of your blood pressure readings can help you chart the fluctuations and provide a long-term look at the highs and lows. Charting can also help you make a case to your doctor if you suffer from “white coat syndrome.” That’s when your reading is always higher at the doctor’s office than at home, likely because a doctor’s visit makes you nervous, Kanllakan says. Nervousness and stress increase your blood pressure. For that reason, Kanllakan suggests charting mood or stress level since those factors play into increases, as well.

Machines to check blood pressure at home can provide at least a ballpark reading between doctor appointments. Most supermarkets and drug stores also have free machines to test blood pressure. Those readings may vary from home or doctor’s office readings because activity pressure varies from resting pressure. You would likely experience a higher reading after walking across a parking lot and through a large store, for example, than you would while sitting on the doctor’s exam table.

Kanllakan says 140 over 90 is high, while 120 over 80 or below is good. “Any time the systolic (top number) is 200 or above or the diastolic (bottom number) is 100 or above, you need to get some help. The higher your blood pressure gets, the higher your risk for stroke,” he says. When high blood pressure is left untreated, the wear and tear breaks down the lining of the arteries, which in turn causes damage to the eyes and kidneys, Kanllakan says. It also causes thickening of the heart muscle. High blood pressure is called “the silent killer” because it often produces no symptoms. For that reason, frequent screening is crucial.

Though no specific cause has been identified, a number of factors including age, race, weight, dietary habits and smoking lead to high blood pressure. “High blood pressure is very treatable. Medication is the main form of treatment, but exercise and dietary changes are important, as well. People need to reduce their sodium intake and maintain a healthy body weight,” Kanllakan says.

Sodium in the diet causes the body to retain fluids, which causes swelling and makes the heart work harder, says Becky Smith, lead clinical dietitian in Memorial’s food and nutrition department. Across-the-board changes to diet may be necessary to reduce blood pressure, Smith says. “It’s not enough to simply reduce sodium. Those with high blood pressure also need to increase their consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Studies have shown that increasing potassium, magnesium and calcium lowers blood pressure,” she says.

Canned vegetables and soups, lunch meat, bologna, hot dogs, and some cheeses are high in sodium, Smith says. Anything processed or instant is higher in sodium than its fresh counterpart. Avoid food items that are cured, pickled or smoked—these are red flags for high salt content. It’s also better to choose fresh or frozen vegetables over canned vegetables and lean, fresh meat over anything cured, she adds. The key is making better choices—such as skim milk instead of whole milk and whole-grain bread instead of white bread, according to Smith. A well-balanced diet contains a variety of low-fat, low-sodium, high-fiber foods and shouldn’t include more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, she says.