No surprise—you already know high blood pressure is bad for you. But did you know it's how we measure the pushing of blood against the walls of your arteries? Too much pressure and the heart works harder. Inside of you, the heart, lungs, blood vessels—even the brain and kidney--can be damaged when that happens and you don't even know it.
That's why high blood pressure is called the silent killer, said Chad Moes, M.D., a family practice physician at Alegent Creighton Clinic Elkhorn. High blood pressure puts you at higher risk of having a heart attack, stroke and kidney disease, all of which can kill you.
Here are some important things you need to understand about high blood pressure:
- Normal readings fall below 120/80. But many of us are in the 120-139 range on our systolic blood pressure, or top number, and the 80-89 range on diastolic, or the lower number. That's just above normal and is called pre-hypertension. People in this range may think they're safe. "But they actually have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure," said Dr. Moes. He recommended lifestyle changes, such as adopting a low-salt diet, losing weight and regular exercise to help lower these numbers.
- Don't ignore high blood pressure. Your risk of heart-related diseases and death approximately doubles for every 20 point increase in your top number and 10 point increase in the lower number.
- You're at greater risk for high blood pressure if you smoke, have a family history, drink too much coffee and/or alcohol, take certain cold and flu medicine and are overweight. But take heart: Dr. Moes said losing even 10 pounds has the potential to get your blood pressure back to normal. "Your blood pressure numbers could go down two points for every one kilogram (approximately two pounds) you lose," he said.
- One easy change to make is to cut back on how much sodium you consume. Sodium raises blood pressure because it causes the body to retain fluid and that puts a bigger burden on the heart. The American Heart Association recommends under 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. Cut back on sodium—even moderately—and you'll lower your top blood pressure reading number by four to five points and your bottom by two to three points, Dr. Moes said. Regular exercise can also make a big difference—reducing your reading as much as five to 15 points.
- Watch out for "White Coat Syndrome." Some patients have normal readings—until they walk into the doctor's office and get nervous, causing their blood pressure to go up. This is one reason you need to have multiple readings before receiving a diagnosis of high blood pressure, according to Dr. Moes