By Glenn Ellis
Americans will have more than1.5 million heart attacks and strokes this and every year. In the African American community, 44 percent of men, and 48 percent of women have some form of cardiovascular disease that includes heart disease and stroke.
The reason is primarily due to that infamous “silent killer” – high blood pressure.
In addition to what I know from my own personal experience, high blood pressure is easy to overlook, and even easier to kill, or can permanently change your life.
The most important thing that many of us don’t realize is that it truly is a silent killer! Unlike many other chronic conditions and diseases, many times (unfortunately) the first indication that you may have high blood pressure, can be the very last thing that happens to you in this life; you might drop dead from a stroke or heart attack.
With diabetes, you could start having to urinate frequently, or begin to have problems with blurred vision. No such luck with high blood pressure. The damage to your heart, arteries, and kidneys can be taking place without any obvious hint that there’s a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Brain cells could be dying, or damaged arteries and veins could no longer be delivering critical oxygen.
Hopefully, I’ve got your full attention now, and I can get on with letting you know why it happens, and what you can do to prevent or manage your high blood pressure.
To begin, high blood pressure is determined by the measured “pressure” against the walls of your arteries when your heart beats, to pump blood through the body; and the pressure against those arteries when it rests between beats. When you have your blood pressure taken, the results are given in two numbers; systolic and diastolic. When it requires too much pressure for the heart to beat, and it doesn’t really “rest” between beats, you’ve got high blood pressure!
The guidelines from the American Heart Association suggest that 120 (systolic) or 80 (diastolic) as the ideal blood pressure for the best health. There are stages of high blood pressure; from the normal range of less than 120/80, to elevated. As your pressure reading approaches 130-139 over 80-89, you are now considered at stage 1 high blood pressure. The higher it gets, the more your health is threatened. The highest pressure recorded in an individual was 370/360!
Keep in mind that earlier in this column, we talked about this being a silent killer. As the pressure remains high, day in day out; year in year out, eyes, kidneys, blood vessels, and the brain, are paying the price, often without you having a clue that there’s a problem.
Now, you ask, “why does this happen? What makes the blood pressure rise and become a threat to my life and health?” We’re all just trying to live a good life, enjoy our families, and be decent people, right?
The reality is that many of our lifestyle behaviors and the choices we make while engaging in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the determining factors.
Up first, sodium! I’ll get to smoking in a minute, but consumption of too much sodium affects everyone, while the danger of smoking is most relevant to smokers.
Simply put, too much sodium prevents your kidneys from removing enough fluid from your body, and the extra fluid creates extra pressure on the kidneys and other organs. Sooner or later, the blood vessels stiffen and get narrower causing the pressure to get blood to flow through them to be higher and higher. This is a definite kidney destroyer, and it all continues to go downhill.
Next up, is smoking. Few other causes of preventable deaths can top smoking. Not much needs to said about its role in high blood pressure. There is still no definitive determination about exactly what happens, but what is known is that smoking creates the buildup of fatty substances (also known as plaque) inside the arteries; this contributes to high blood pressure, among other health problems. And remember, every time you smoke, your blood pressure increases!
Finally, here are a few things you can do to control or prevent high blood pressure:
Control your sodium intake. Aim to keep your daily consumption to 2,300mg of sodium. One reason high blood pressure affects one out of every three people in this country is that our average daily intake is 3,400 mg. And please know that it’s not just putting down the salt shaker. It is thought that only 5 percent of our sodium intake comes from the salt shaker. Most of the sodium we consume is already in the foods we eat (processed and restaurant foods). “If you’re able, read the label”!
Then there’s smoking. If you smoke, quit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. There’s plenty of help and support to do accomplish either of these.
In closing, check your blood pressure readings on a regular basis, even if you feel fine. Generally, people with high blood pressure have no symptoms. You can check your blood pressure readings at home, at a pharmacy, and at a doctor’s office.
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor? and Information is the Best Medicine. Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50 p.m., or visit: www.glennellis.com