Hyper about hypertension?

By: Vanessa Chris, Feb 07, 2011

Get the facts about high blood pressure before it’s too late

If you're like most Canadians, defining the term 'high blood pressure' or 'hypertension', is probably a difficult feat.

According to a recent survey by Hypertension Canada, few of us are even aware of its deadly side effects – stroke, heart attack, heart and kidney failure, dementia and sexual problems. We incorrectly assume that, if the day arrives when we're hit with high blood pressure, we'll be able to feel the symptoms – not realizing that by the time you feel symptoms, you're probably about to experience a life-threatening "event". 

The good news is, until you suffer that stroke or heart attack, hypertension is reversible. There are several lifestyle changes that you can make – and, failing that, medications you can take – to protect yourself. The key is to know the facts and implement good habits as early as possible.

So, what is it? Blood pressure is the blood's force on the walls of the arteries. When measuring blood pressure, an ideal number for people without diabetes is less than 140/90 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). The top number measures the systolic blood pressure, or the maximum pressure exerted when the heart contracts (and pumps out blood). The bottom number measures the diastolic blood pressure, or minimum pressure in the arteries when the heart is at rest.

When your blood pressure is high, it puts stress on the blood vessels. According to Dr. Sheldon Tobe, chair of the Canadian Hypertension Education Plan (CHEP) Recommendations Task Force, the effect is similar to a car's radiator hose.

"If you go on a road trip on a hot day, your car's radiator hose will start to bulge as the engine starts working overtime," he says. "The added stress can cause the hose to crack and leak. Similarly, high blood pressure makes our blood vessels bulge – but if they crack and leak, you're in trouble."

For premenopausal women, the likelihood of being diagnosed with hypertension is close to zero – compared to 10 per cent of men ages 18-35. After menopause, however, that number drastically increases – by age 60, 50 per cent of women are hypertensive, and this number increases as we age. While hypertension is inevitable, the goal is to delay the onset of it, and be able to identify and treat it when it occurs.

Keep high blood pressure at bay

There are five simple steps you can take to delay the onset of hypertension:

1. Restrict your salt intake.
The majority (80 per cent) of sodium in our diets comes from fast foods and prepared foods. By making more meals at home – and using interesting spices rather than the salt shaker to flavour them – you'll drastically reduce your salt intake. For more information, click here.

2. Exercise
Walking briskly for 40 minutes a day, four days a week will do wonders to keep your blood pressure in check. If you don't have the time to do it all at once, try to break it up into four 10-minute increments.

3. Maintain a healthy weight.
A healthy weight is another important factor in keeping your blood pressure at a decent level. If you need to lose, you'll likely have to increase the amount you exercise per week. Studies have shown that waist circumference is directly related to heart health, so women should aim to have a waist circumference of less than 88 cm (35 in) and men should be less than 102 (40 in). To find out how to measure your waist, click here.

4. Avoid high alcohol intake.
Women are more sensitive than men to the effects of alcohol, and more than 10 drinks per week can significantly increase your blood pressure reading.

5. Get checked regularly.
Sometimes, even if you do everything right, you may still find yourself prone to hypertension thanks to genetics. If that's the case, there are a variety of medications out there that can help reduce your blood pressure reading. Make sure you get your blood pressure checked at all regular doctor visits to ensure you catch hypertension in time.

Vanessa Chris is an award-winning journalist specializing in the realm of business writing. Since graduating from the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate Program in Journalism, her work has appeared in such publications as Canadian Real Estate magazine, various Post City and Metroland publications, The London Free Press and a bi-weekly lifestyle/relationship column in the Toronto Star.