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High Blood Pressure: The Silent Destroyer

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High Blood Pressure: The Silent Destroyer

High Blood Pressure: The Silent Destroyer

November 05, 2007

Part 1

By: Jean Johnson for Veins1

How does being paralyzed on your left side and living the rest of your life from a wheel chair sound? That’s what happened to Mack Lowell at the relatively young age of 62. [For the full story of Lowell’s stroke, along with his amazingly upbeat insights, see The Night the Music Stopped on Veins1.]

Take Action
Ten Steps to Better Blood Pressure, Adapted from Harvard Medical School
  • Check it. “You can’t do much about your blood pressure unless you know what it is.”
  • Get moving. Even a brisk walk helps because it “improves blood vessel flexibility and heart function.” Also Harvard notes that people can lower their pressure by 10 points through regular exercise.
  • Eat right. Go for food that is not processed: fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, low-fat dairy, poultry. Avoid red meat, sugar, and saturated fat.
  • Control your weight. Harvard observes that even a drop in 10 pounds can make a significant difference in blood pressure.
  • Don’t smoke. Nicotine constricts the small blood vessels and is no one’s friend. Even smoking one cigarette can send the systolic blood pressure up 20 points momentarily.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. More than one drink daily for women and two for men can contribute to high blood pressure.
  • Shake up your salts. The goal is no more than one teaspoon total per day. Processed foods especially harbor high salt contents and thus the American Medical Association has asked them to cut sodium content in foods by 50 percent by the year 2016.
  • Sleep is good. Harvard recommends six hours at the very least and eight as the more appropriate range for most.
  • Reduce stress. “As surely as mental and emotional stress can raise blood pressure, meditation, deep breathing, and other stress-busting activities can lower it.”
  • Stick with your medications. There’s no substitute for faithfully taking the pills prescribed by one’s physician. While a person will not be able to feel the results of the medication, it is critical in normalizing pressures that are dangerously high.
  • As he now knows, hypertension is nothing to fool around with. Even though the disease is silent and usually causes no discernible symptoms, its destructive work proceeds until at last, sweeping and dire consequences can manifest in any number of ways including the stroke that took Lowell down.

    How High Blood Pressure Works and Its Danger Zones

    The two numbers of a blood pressure reading are worth considering. The high number, called the systolic, reflects the highest pressure in the arteries that occurs precisely at the moment the heart beats and sends another round of fresh oxygenated blood to the body. The diastolic, or lower reading, records the pressure in between the beats when the heart is at rest.

    A reading of 120/80 mm Hg is considered normal, and 140/90 mm Hg or more means a patient has high blood pressure. Readings between 120/80 mm and 139/89 mm Hg are considered pre-hypertensive; patients should learn behaviors useful in bringing the numbers down. Harvard Medical School states in one of its publications, Hypertension: Controlling the Silent Killer, that “the danger zone starts at lower pressures than experts once believed.”

    Blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day and is generally lowest when sleeping. It rises when a person is active as well as when they are excited or nervous. Nearly one in three Americans has hypertension, and according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI,) “Once high blood pressure develops, it usually lasts a lifetime.” That said, the NHLBI states, “The good news is that it can be treated and controlled.”

    Why High Blood Pressure Is Dangerous

    Because the heart pumps blood into the circulation system at the rate of 60 to 70 beats per minute, consistent high pressure can cause significant wear and tear on the body’s vital organs. In particular, sustained, untreated blood pressure can cause the heart to enlarge – which may lead to heart failure. Further, enduring more pressure than they were designed to withstand, the blood vessels can develop small bulges called aneurysms. These bulges can burst without warning and are commonly found in the main artery leading from the heart (aorta), arteries in the brain, legs, intestines, and the ones leading to the spleen. When an artery in the brain bursts, stroke or a cerebral vascular hemorrhage like the one Lowell had ensues.

    Kidneys also depend on good supplies of blood; high blood pressure can cause the arteries that feed these critical organs to narrow. As with the heart, when the kidneys are forced to carry on under this type of duress, they can fail. In a 2006 study of more than 720,000 adult patients with chronic kidney disease, cardiologists looked specifically at associations between high blood pressure and sleep apnea. Researchers found that high blood pressure was generally present with sleep apnea, regardless of whether the patient had kidney disease. When both sleep apnea and chronic kidney disease were present, rates of high blood pressure increased.

    Although the eyes can sometimes be left out of the high blood pressure discussion, they are also very much influenced. Blood vessels in the eyes can burst or bleed under excess pressure. Vision changes or even blindness can result.

    In the second part of this series on hypertension, we’ll explore behaviors that contribute to the disease as well as lifestyle changes that institutions from Harvard to the Mayo Clinic and beyond recommend.

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