Many people may have high blood pressure and not even know it because it usually doesn't have any symptoms. It's often discovered when your doctor takes your blood pressure during an office visit.
Blood pressure is two measurements reported as systolic pressure over diastolic pressure (e.g., 120 over 80 or 120/80). Systolic is the pressure of blood pushing against the artery walls when the heart is pumping. Diastolic shows the pressure of blood pushing against the artery walls when the heart is relaxing.
High blood pressure (also called hypertension) is a measurement of 140/90 or higher at two different times. "Untreated high blood pressure increases strain on your heart and arteries and can eventually cause other organ damage. Hypertension can increase the risk of heart failure, heart attack, and stroke," says Alice Y. Kim, MD, FACC, with Brigham and Women's Cardiovascular Associates at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island and Kent Hospital, director of the Advanced Valvular Heart Disease Clinic at Kent, and instructor in medicine, Harvard Medical School.
If you have high blood pressure, it is important to take your prescribed medications regularly even if you feel well since most people don't have any symptoms, Dr. Kim says. These lifestyle changes can also help prevent or control hypertension:
- Maintain an ideal body weight or lose extra weight. Dr. Kim advises following The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), which has been proven to lower blood pressure by limiting salt intake and portion sizes while letting you enjoy a variety of vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy foods, and moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts.
- Be physically active. Regular physical activity lowers blood pressure, controls weight, and reduces stress. Start walking 10 minutes in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening for two weeks. Then, increase that time to 15 to 20 minutes for two weeks, so you're walking up to 45 to 60 minutes a day. "Walking in the pool, gardening, and dancing are just a few new things you can try," Dr. Kim says. "Have an exercise buddy to keep you motivated."
- Eat less salt and salty foods. Cut back on pre-packaged and processed foods. Dine out less. Don't add salt to your food or when cooking. Foods high in sodium include deli meats, canned soups, tomato sauces, and chips. A low sodium diet contains fewer than two grams (2,000 milligrams) of sodium per day. "Cut out two to four restaurant meals a week and stop buying processed food in a can or sauces in a jar," Dr. Kim says.
- Cut back on alcohol. Limit drinks to two a day for men and one a day for women. A drink is one can of beer, glass of wine, or mixed drink.
- Stop smoking. Smoking temporarily increases your blood pressure and increases your risk of heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer, emphysema, other cancers, and infertility. "Pick a quit date, change your routine around smoking, and talk to your doctor about certain medicines and support groups," Dr. Kim says.
- Stress in combination with sleep deprivation can increase blood pressure. With stress, your heart rate increases and blood vessels narrow, causing a temporary rise in blood pressure. Ongoing stress can contribute to hypertension. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.