What should people know about high blood pressure?

The Halloween season brings blood-curdling sensory experiences aimed at momentarily spiking one's heart rate.

High blood pressure, on the other hand, presents potential health fears of a lasting kind, according to cardiologist Duane Follman of AMITA Health Medical Group Heart & Vascular in Hinsdale. And it's quite prevalent.

"Almost 45 percent of people have some level of hypertension," Follman remarked, using the other name for the condition.

Those arm cuffs everyone puts on at their annual checkups measure the force of the blood in the artery walls.

"The ideal blood pressure should be 120 over 80 or less," he said. The numbers represent systolic pressure, the force as one's heart beats, over diastolic pressure, the force between heartbeats.

Follman noted that medical experts have long debated the appropriate ranges for healthy and unhealthy blood pressures. Generally, systolic readings above 130 and diastolic readings above 90 are considered hypertensive. But it can go undetected without testing.

"The most important thing about hypertension is it is a silent deterioration of your heart and body," he said. "The heart muscle has to beat harder and it gets thicker. You don't want thick heart muscle because then the chambers get smaller.

"By the time you start having symptoms in your 60s, 70s and 80s, it's permanent damage," he added.

Precipitating factors in high blood pressure are obesity, diet and lack of exercise.

"Our sodium intake is high and our activity level is less," he said. "If you've overweight and eating a lot of salty foods, you're going to increase your risk of hypertension."

Steps to mitigate high blood pressure include losing weight, eating more grains and fruits, limiting alcohol consumption and engaging in physical activity.

"A 10 percent weight loss will cause a marked reduction in blood pressure," he said. "Get 150 minutes a week of activity in, whether, walking, running, swimming, gardening or something that just increases your body's activity in a way that you're most comfortable doing."

The belief that stress is a contributor is a misconception.

"Stress is not a direct cause of hypertension since, in most cases, it's short-term ­- unless stress leads you to a bad lifestyle. It's what you do with the stress that's really the key."

Other health risks associated with hypertension are strokes, heart attacks and even kidney damage. Follman said the majority of obese people are in danger of suffering from high blood pressure and would be well-served to purchase their own blood pressure cuff.

"Keep a blood pressure log. Once a week measure your pressure during quiescence" or inactivity, he advised. That's because a simple event like stubbing one's toe can spike blood pressure and give a false reading.

Treating blood pressure will not make you feel better, he said, reiterating that the effects are not reversible. But early detection is the key to prevention.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, hypertension is silent. By the time it manifests itself, it's too late."

- by Ken Knutson

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean