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Know Your Numbers!

Know your blood pressure numbers for better health.Every day, it seems we are inundated with more numbers: passwords, daily steps, PINs. Forgetting your garage door entry code is a nuisance. But not knowing your blood pressure numbers could be deadly.

“We call high blood pressure ‘the silent killer’ because it is virtually symptomless,” says Ashley Lepak, DO, family physician with Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group in Franklin “You can feel normal but have a ridiculously high blood pressure that causes permanent damage before you’re even aware of it. That’s why early detection is vital.”

High blood pressure (also called hypertension) is common, affecting about 80 million Americans over age 20. Although it’s more common as we age, even young children can develop high blood pressure. It is most often diagnosed during a routine medical exam.

What is Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the artery walls. It is measured in two numbers:

  • The top (systolic) number measures the force of blood pumping out of the heart and into the arteries. This oxygen-rich blood circulates throughout your system to keep your organs and tissue healthy.
  • The bottom (diastolic) number measures the force as your heart rests between beats.

A healthy blood pressure is less than 120 (systolic) over 80 (diastolic). If multiple readings over a period of days or weeks indicate a systolic pressure of 140+ or a diastolic pressure of 90+, you likely will be diagnosed with high blood pressure.

I Feel Fine, so Why Worry if My Blood Pressure is High?

“High blood pressure stretches and damages the arteries,” Dr. Lepak explains. “Over time, scars or small tears develop, which can lead to blood clots that cause a stroke or aneurysm. Or the arteries become blocked, causing a heart attack. Hypertension can also lead to congestive heart failure and peripheral artery disease.”

In addition to the heart, high blood pressure can permanently damage your brain, kidneys, eyes and other vital organs. It also causes erectile dysfunction.

Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure

  • Family history
  • Ethnicity, with African Americans at greater risk
  • Being overweight
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor nutrition, especially too much sodium
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Other preexisting conditions
  • Medications such as contraceptives and over the counter cough and cold meds

You Can Prevent Life-Threatening Health Conditions

The good news? High blood pressure often can be prevented through healthy habits. And if you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, lifestyle changes and medication prescribed by your doctor can help keep it within healthy limits.

Dr. Lepak suggests you also know these important numbers to reduce your risk for disease:

  • Body Mass Index (BMI). It’s not a perfect measure, but BMI is a useful indicator of your body’s fat ratio. Use our handy BMI calculator and work to stay within a normal range of about 18 to 25. “Remember you didn’t gain weight overnight and you won’t lose it overnight either,” Dr. Lepak advised. “Even losing 5 pounds can reduce strain on your heart.”
  • Cholesterol Numbers. If your “good” cholesterol is too low or “bad” cholesterol numbers are high, you are at greater risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Talk with your doctor about how often to have a blood test to measure these levels.

    “High cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms either,” Dr. Lepak says. “People don’t know they have it until they have blood work done – or they have a heart attack.”

Additional Tips to Help You Stay Healthy

  • Have an annual physical and blood pressure reading.
  • Aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise each week.
  • Decrease your intake of saturated fats and salt. Salt retains fluid in your body, forcing the heart to work harder.
  • Limit alcohol consumption and don’t smoke.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods, such as fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, seeds and nuts.
  • Do not stop taking blood pressure medication without talking with your doctor.

Visit our Health Library for comprehensive information on maintaining healthy blood pressure.

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