Don't let 'silent killer' sneak up on you

High blood pressure can strike without warning; doctor offers advice on managing condition

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

How’s your blood pressure?

  • Great. It’s always 120/80 or lower. 45%
  • OK. But I’m making lifestyle changes to lower it. 21%
  • Not so good. I’m being treated for high blood pressure. 28%
  • I have no idea. 6%

127 total votes.

photoClick to enlarge

It's America's "silent killer," contributing to nearly 1,000 deaths a day. Yet many people don't even know they have it.

It's not a mysterious disease. It's high blood pressure, and nearly 1 in 3 adults -- or about 67 million people -- have it, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

High blood pressure is called the "silent killer" because it often has no warning signs or symptoms. And in most cases -- up to 95 percent -- the cause of high blood pressure is unknown, according to the American Heart Association.

Regular blood pressure checks are key to catching and controlling high blood pressure, said Dr. John Koehler, a family medicine physician for Legacy Medical Group-Battle Ground.

Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of arteries. Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers, one while the heart is contracting (systolic) and the other when the heart is relaxing between beats (diastolic).

The measurement is expressed like a fraction, the systolic number over the diastolic number.

Blood pressure up to 120/80 is considered in the "normal" range, according to the CDC.

Those with a systolic pressure (top number) of 120 to 139 or a diastolic pressure (bottom number) of 80 to 89 are in the "moderate" range. Those with a systolic pressure above 140 or a diastolic pressure above 90 are in the "high range." Both numbers don't have to be elevated in order for a person to be considered in the "moderate" or "high" ranges, only one of the two figures, Koehler said.

Physicians typically encourage people with blood pressure in the moderate range to make lifestyle changes to bring down their blood pressure naturally. Those changes could include starting an exercise routine, losing weight or avoiding salt in foods, Koehler said.

If a person's blood pressure trends high, then the physician may turn to medications to bring the numbers down, he said.

People with blood pressure below 110/60 may be overtreating their condition. Blood pressure that's too low can cause a person to be light-headed and put him or her at risk for falling, Koehler said.

Those with moderate or high blood pressure are also encouraged to check their blood pressure in between doctor visits. For some people, just being in a doctor's office may cause blood pressure to increase, giving doctors a false reading, Koehler said.

"The trend in blood pressure management is getting you to check your blood pressure outside of the clinic setting," he said. "We care about what it's doing at home."

Drug stores and pharmacies often have stations where people can check their blood pressure. Blood pressure cuffs can also be purchased for use at home for about $50, Koehler said.

Treating high blood pressure -- with medication and/or lifestyle changes -- is important to overall health. Long-term high blood pressure makes a person at higher risk for stroke and heart attack, he said.

"High blood pressure definitely affects the heart," Koehler said.

According to the CDC, people with high blood pressure are four times more likely to die from a stroke and three times more likely to die from heart disease, which is the No. 1 killer in the U.S.

As a person ages, the likelihood of developing high blood pressure goes up. But getting in about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help keep blood pressure down, he said.

"That can really help lower your blood pressure and help your heart stay healthy," Koehler said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.