By Richard Fleming, M.D.
High blood pressure is often called the silent killer, and an important first step to dealing with it is knowing your blood pressure reading. Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t know their blood pressure, or haven’t had it checked in a long time.
Blood pressure tends to go up as we get older, so having a normal reading a year or two ago doesn’t mean it’s still normal today.
And what is normal blood pressure? There is some debate about this, but 140/90 is the highest level we like to see. A little lower is often good, around 130/80, especially if you have heart trouble or diabetes. For those with high blood pressure, it is important to check your reading regularly, either with a home machine or using one of the free machines found in many grocery stores and pharmacies.
High blood pressure is more common in people over age 50. It can run in families, so if you have family members with the condition, you are more likely to get it. High blood pressure is more common in African-Americans, for reasons doctors do not yet understand. Though everyone should have their blood pressure checked at least once a year, it is especially important to keep an eye on it if you are in one of the groups mentioned.
While high blood pressure is common, and can be dangerous if untreated, there are effective ways to lower your blood pressure to normal. Treatment comes in two main types, lifestyle changes and medication.
Let’s look at lifestyle first. If you are overweight, dropping 5 or 10 pounds can help. Regular exercise lowers your pressure. Stopping smoking, keeping alcohol intake at a modest level, and avoiding salt in the diet — all these can improve blood pressure.
If lifestyle changes do not get the blood pressure down to normal, there are various prescription medicines that usually do the trick. Doctors will often start with one pill, but if your blood pressure stays high, it is common to add a second, or even third, medicine.
Through simple lifestyle changes and regular medication, it is almost always possible to bring blood pressure down to normal. Sadly, only half the people in the U.S. with high blood pressure have it under control.
Doctors do not know how to stop the aging process, but there are things that can slow it down. Keeping an eye on your blood pressure, and treating it if it’s high, can add years to your life.
— Dr. Richard Fleming is the regional medical director of Partnership HealthPlan of California