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Know Your Numbers

May Is High Blood Pressure Education Month

You’ve checked into your doctor’s office and are called back to a treatment room. A nurse takes four major vital signs: pulse, respiratory rate, body temperature and blood pressure—these will give your doctor a general idea of how your body is doing. “Each body is different, but these target numbers are widely used to evaluate your health,” said board-certified cardiologist Dr. Samuel H. Foster, who is the medical director of the cardiac rehabilitation program at CalvertHealth Medical Center.

Why are Blood Pressure Numbers Important?

By taking your blood pressure, your doctor can measure how hard your heart is working to pump blood around your body through your arteries. If your arteries are narrowed by a buildup of plaque from fat, cholesterol or other substances, your heart has to work harder to push blood through them to nourish and provide oxygen to your brain, organs and tissue.

“A high blood pressure number alone, from one doctor’s appointment reading, is not a gauge of overall health,” said Foster, “but, combined with other tests and an exam, it can help indicate areas to monitor.”

What Do the Numbers Mean?

Blood pressure readings contain two numbers expressed as a fraction, 120/80. You’ll hear your doctor or nurse say “120 over 80.” The first number is systolic pressure—the pressure in the arteries when the lower part of the heart beats and squeezes blood against the artery wall. The second number is diastolic pressure—the pressure in the blood vessels between heart beats. Normal blood pressure for adults of all ages is between 90/60 and 120/80.

What are the Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?

“High blood pressure alone really doesn’t have any symptoms and many people don’t even feel that anything is wrong,” said Foster. “It is called a ‘silent killer’ because people feel that if they don’t have symptoms then they don’t need to worry. Unfortunately, it is the complications from high blood pressure that present symptoms, such as shortness of breath, headaches, chest pain and slurred speech.”

What Are the Risks of High Blood Pressure?

“Risks from continued, untreated high blood pressure include heart failure, heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and blindness,” said Foster, “which is why it is important for patients who have high blood pressure to take steps to lower their risk.”

Despite being largely preventable, heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and other cardiovascularrelated conditions led to 2.2 million hospitalizations in 2016, resulting in 415,000 deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research. Many of the heart events were in middle-aged adults, age 34-64, with about 775,000 hospitalizations. High blood pressure is the second leading cause of kidney failure among African Americans and the leading cause of death due to its link with heart attacks and strokes.

The DASH Diet - the Best Treatment for High BP

“The first, and number one treatment, for high blood pressure is adjusting what you eat,” said Foster who recommends DASH [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension].

DASH is a lifelong approach to healthy eating that encourages you to reduce the sodium (salt) in your diet and to eat a variety of foods rich in nutrients that help lower blood pressure, such as potassium, calcium and magnesium. DASH limits salt to 2,300 mg a day, as compared to a typical American diet which can include 3,400 mg of sodium a day.

“Unfortunately, altering your diet is not a simple fix for some people who find it hard to make changes in the foods they eat, or how they prepare their food, but I promise my patients once they make healthy eating a habit, they will feel better and more energetic,” said Foster. “There is also the benefit of losing weight and reducing the medications you take.”

“The medical community is not waiting on a scientific breakthrough in treating high blood pressure—we already know that small changes in diet and exercise, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol is the best treatment for improving blood pressure and thereby improving heart health over a lifetime,” said Foster.

If you have questions about your blood pressure, make an appointment to talk with your primary care physician. If you don’t have a primary care physician, contact the physician referral line at 888.906.8773.
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