America’s leading heart experts have discovered almost 80 percent of the nation’s seniors have high blood pressure. Sometimes called the “silent killer,” high blood pressure (hypertension) creates few symptoms. In many cases, victims are not even aware of the problem until suffering an infarction. For this reason, early detection is key to treating high blood pressure. Even though it cannot be cured, blood pressure can be controlled with diet, exercise, medication, and weight loss.
What is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force exerted against veins and arteries as the heart pumps blood through the body. It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) and presented as a fraction, 120/80 for instance. The top number is your systolic pressure, the force applied as blood is pushed out the heart. The bottom number is your diastolic pressure, the force present when your heart is at rest.
Blood pressure changes throughout the day. It is lowest in the morning, after waking up, and rises as you become more active. Exercise, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine cause blood pressure to spike, but it falls within a few hours.
How Do You Know if You have High Blood Pressure?
For most people, regular testing is the only way to detect high blood pressure. However, in rare cases, there may be signs, such as:
- Severe headaches
- Constant Fatigue
- Blurry Vision
- Chest Pain
- Irregular Heartbeat
- Bloody Urine
Most symptoms occur because high blood pressure impairs circulation. If veins are clogged, then blood cannot travel quickly, and people become lightheaded or short of breath. When the heart is not receiving enough air, the muscle misfires. Buildup of fluid around the eyes distorts vision. Meanwhile, in the head, restricted arteries can produce painful throbbing.
What are the Causes?
There are many reasons why people develop high blood pressure, some of which are beyond their control.
- Weight. Excess weight increases vascular resistance, the force that must be overcome for the heart to pump blood. Even five extra pounds is enough to raise blood pressure.
- Diet. High blood pressure is closely linked to sodium and cholesterol. Cholesterol calcifies our veins, gradually making them narrower and inflexible. At the same time, sodium increases blood volume, which puts more stress on the heart.
- Age. Regardless of lifestyle, arteries and veins get stiffer and narrower as people get older. As vessels become less elastic, blood is forced through smaller channels, increasing pressure. A person who has not developed high blood pressure by age 55 still has a 90 percent chance of developing it over the course of their lifetime.
- Genetics. There is some evidence that high blood pressure runs in families. If both parents were diagnosed with it, their children are likely to be diagnosed as well.
Keep in mind it is impossible to tell whether someone has good blood pressure from a single reading. Because each of us is built differently, a high reading for one person may be normal for someone else. No matter the number, it takes a doctor to diagnose hypertension. However, if you notice your numbers creeping up, be sure to see one as soon as possible.
How Do You Treat High Blood Pressure?
Treating high blood pressure is not hard. On the contrary, seniors can lower their risk with some simple lifestyle changes.
Losing weight is the best way of treating high blood pressure. Every two pounds lost can lower it by as much as 1 mm Hg.
Weight loss is a slow process. You need to track what you eat and how much you burn. One pound is equivalent to 3,500 calories. Start slow; cut 500 calories from your weekly diet. Aim to lose 1-2 pounds a week, with the final goal of losing at least 10 percent of your current body weight.
Also, exercise at least 150 minutes a week. Work outs do not have to be strenuous. Jogging, swimming, bicycling, and walking are great ways to get the heart moving, but simple household chores will do as well. 45-60 minutes of gardening, window washing, or raking leaves will have the same effect.
Physical activity strengthens the heart, allowing it to pump more effectively. If you have not exercised in a while, make sure to set a reasonable target for yourself. Thirty minutes a day, five days a week is a good place to start. Older adults may want to talk to their doctor to see what type of exercise they recommend.
If you are having trouble staying motivated, reach out to other seniors in your community. Join a neighborhood walking group, a gardening circle, a dance class, or a bicycle club. Exercising together encourages everyone to reach their goals.
Treating high blood pressure without medication is easy when you eat right. You want to reduce your intake of fat and sodium, while increasing your intake of healthy minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium, which reduce hypertension.
- Grains. Your daily diet should include 6-8 servings of whole grains: barley, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oatmeal, popcorn, bread, pasta, and crackers. Not everything that looks whole grain is, so always check the label. Grains are good because they are naturally low in fat. Therefore, avoid the temptation of adding butter, cream, or cheese when you eat them.
- Vegetables. Consume 4-5 servings of vegetables each day. Tomatoes, carrots, celery, broccoli, beets, and spinach are high in nitrates, calcium, and magnesium, so eat plenty if you can. They will help relax blood vessels and improve their performance.
- Fruit. Another rich source of vitamins and minerals, a healthy diet should include 4-5 servings of fruits. According to research, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, grapefruit, oranges, and lemons are great for treating high blood pressure. However, citrus fruits can interfere with certain types of medication, so check with your doctor before making them part of your daily routine.
- Dairy. A small amount of dairy is good for you, but no more than 2-3 servings a day. Make sure you choose sources that are low in fat, like skim milk or fat-free yogurt. You want the calcium, not the calories.
- Lean Meat. Red meat is loaded with cholesterol, so focus on chicken, turkey, and fish instead. Cut away the excess fat, then bake, grill, or roast them. Limit yourself to one 6-ounce serving a day.
- Nuts, Seeds, & Beans. Nuts and beans are excellent sources of magnesium and potassium. Pumpkin seeds promote production of nitric oxide, which promotes blood flow. Nuts are also high in healthy fats. Altogether, you should eat 4-5 servings a week.
However, eating healthy does not mean you cannot indulge occasionally. There is room for fats and sweets but keep them limited. 2-3 servings of fat a day and no more than five servings of sugar a week.
Watch Your Sodium
Sodium is everywhere. To avoid it, eat as little pre-packaged food as possible. Check the labels on condiments. Read the fine print on what you buy at the store; Soups, broths, and poultry often have added sodium. Instead of reaching for the salt, spice up your food with sage, onions, garlic, paprika, ginger, rosemary, citrus, cinnamon, vinegars, and red pepper flakes.
Cut Down on Alcohol
Alcohol raises blood pressure significantly. Men should have no more than two drinks a day, women no more than one. In general, a drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
Smoking narrows arteries, raises heart rate, hardens blood vessels, and increases risk of blood clots. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about quitting.
Set Aside Time to Relax
Stress raises heart rate and blood pressure. Constant stress increases chances of an infarction. If you want to stay healthy treating high blood pressure, avoid aggravation and instead spend more time doing things that make you happy. Indulge a hobby or visit friends and family. Concentrating on the positive aspects of life helps bring your numbers down.
Are There Other Methods of Treating High Blood Pressure?
Besides changing their lifestyle, there are a few other steps seniors should take to keep their blood pressure under control.
Check with Your Doctor
Most people with high blood pressure do not realize it, so it is important to get tested at least once a year. Depending on your condition, the doctor may ask you to come in more often, to monitor your progress and adjust any medication they have prescribed. Be sure not to smoke, work out, or drink caffeine for at least 30 minutes before your appointment. If you are seeing a new doctor, tell them what medications you are taking, as some drugs may affect your results.
Check Your Blood Pressure at Home
To start treating high blood pressure, you need to know your numbers. There are several blood pressure monitors you can use at home. These machines are fully automated and require no training. Simply follow the instructions and in a few minutes, it will tell you how you are doing.
Nurses recommend measuring your blood pressure first thing in the morning, thirty minutes before taking your medication. Then, once you have recorded the result, measure it again thirty minutes later to see how your body has responded.
Monitoring blood pressure helps you manage medication effectively. Physicians prescribe a wide range of drugs for treating high blood pressure. For example, ACE inhibitors dilate blood vessels, while water pills cut down on excess fluid.
Tracking your numbers tells you when it is safe to take medication. If you wake up with high blood pressure, you know you need to take a pill to bring it back to normal. However, there may be days when you wake up with low blood pressure. When this happens, reducing blood pressure further will dilate your vessels too much, making you lightheaded and putting you at risk of a fall.
Every patient is different. Some require a single pill, others four or five. Make sure you create a schedule that ensures you take the right doses at the right time. Post reminders, use a pill dispenser, keep a list of every medication you take, and get your refills in advance. If you encounter any side effects, report them to your doctor straightaway.
What are the Health Risks?
High blood pressure puts an enormous strain on your cardiovascular system. If left untreated, it can seriously damage your heart, brain, and other crucial areas.
High blood pressure weakens veins and arteries, making it more likely they will clog or burst. Because they are small, vessels in the brain are especially vulnerable. Damage to a vessel here can seriously harm your movement, speech, vision, and memory.
- Ischemic Stroke. When fatty deposits build up inside blood vessels, they can rupture and block arteries in the brain. Conversely, a narrow vessel could restrict blood flow so severely that brain cells begin to die from lack of nutrients.
- Hemorrhagic Stroke. This is caused when a weakened vessel bursts inside the brain. As blood leaks out, it puts pressure on the surrounding tissue, as well as depriving the brain of oxygen.
The good news is most strokes are preventable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that treating high blood pressure would reduce the number of strokes by roughly 80 percent.
High blood pressure affects almost every part of the body. Force and friction cause microscopic tears that gradually fill with plaque, restricting blood flow to vital organs.
- Heart Attack. High blood pressure wears down the delicate lining of arteries feeding the heart. Eventually, as they become weaker, this can lead to a blockage or rupture, preventing nutrients from reaching the heart muscle.
- Heart Failure. High blood pressure means the heart is struggling to circulate blood. Over time, the strain forces it to become larger and thicker. If pressure is not brought down, it might lose the ability to pump blood effectively to the furthest parts of the body.
- Kidney Failure. Kidneys are supplied by an intricate web of blood vessels. As these become damaged, kidneys lose their ability to filter toxins, as well as regulate hormones, acids, and salts.
- Loss of Vision. Blood vessels in the eyes are delicate and easily damaged by increased pressure. When this happens, people can lose their ability to see, either partially or totally.
High blood pressure can also wear out the peripheral arteries in your arms, legs, head, and stomach. When this happens, pain and fatigue are the most common symptoms.
For seniors, blood pressure is likely to be an issue for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, treating high blood pressure is simple. Actively monitor your condition, follow your doctor’s advice, keep track of your medication, adjust your lifestyle, and you will be able to live a long, healthy life.
Lewis Jackson writes about technology and healthcare. His work provides practical insight into modern medicine and healthy living.