Blood pressure is like what Mark Twain said about the weather, “Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.” Well almost. I have found that blood pressure is one of those subjects that is widely and wildly misunderstood. I used to think it was like grey hair on old people. Everybody has it. I was dead wrong.
Few assumptions are more dangerous than this one: If you have high blood pressure, you know it.
Doctors refer to high blood pressure, or hypertension, as a silent killer because it rarely produces warning signs.
“When symptoms do occur, such as headache, nosebleeds or blurry vision, high blood pressure may have already reached severe and possibly life-threatening levels,” says Daniel Pohlman, MD, a primary care doctor at Rush University Medical Center.
Why is it essential to know whether you have high blood pressure? According to the Centers for Disease Control, hypertension increases your risk for serious or life-threatening health conditions:
About 7 of every 10 people having their first heart attack have high blood pressure.
About 8 of every 10 people having their first stroke have high blood pressure.
About 7 of every 10 people with chronic (long-lasting) heart failure have high blood pressure.
Here, Pohlman and Shaila Pai-Verma, MD, an internist at Rush, clear up three other potentially dangerous misconceptions about hypertension:
1. If you’re naturally calm or not significantly stressed, you won’t have high blood pressure.
Not so, Pohlman says. Anyone can develop hypertension, regardless of personality or personal pressures.
2 If you’re too young for AARP, you aren’t at risk for high blood pressure.
Wrong again. Although risk increases with age, even children can develop this condition. The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to get it checked regularly.
Starting at age 3, children should have their blood pressure measured at all routine office visits, Pohlman says. Adults should have it checked at least every two years, or more often if they have heightened risk.
Obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and a family history of high blood pressure all increase your risk.
3. ‘White coat hypertension’ is harmless.
In times of stress, blood pressure goes up. Sometimes, this stress reaction can be likened to a case of stage fright, such as when blood pressure readings taken during a doctor’s appointment are high and readings taken elsewhere are normal.
A study describes how this phenomenon, known as white-coat hypertension and previously thought to be harmless, is related to a significantly greater risk of developing sustained high blood pressure within 10 years, says Pai Verma.
If you have white-coat hypertension, it’s important to watch your blood pressure closely because serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke, are more likely with sustained high blood pressure. Here are three steps to help you keep track of your blood pressure.
Select the right blood pressure monitor. Different types are available. Pai-Verma recommends getting one for the upper arm, as opposed to a wrist monitor, which may not give an accurate reading. Typically a pharmacist can help you select a good monitor and explain how to use it.
Take regular readings. Use your monitor to take your blood pressure at least twice a week. To get accurate readings, avoid excessive alcohol or caffeine and don’t smoke or take medicines that can raise blood pressure, such as decongestants, for about four hours before your home checks, advises Pai-Verma.
Keep a record of your results, and bring it to your next doctor’s appointment, along with your monitor. Your doctor can check the monitor’s accuracy by ensuring readings you get on it while at the office match those that the doctor gets with his or her monitor.
Follow your doctor’s advice. If your blood pressure readings stay below 140/90 mm Hg, you can usually continue with home monitoring and regular doctor visits, Pai-Verma says. If readings hit 140/90 mm Hg or higher, you may need to take medication and make lifestyle changes, such as eating healthfully, exercising and losing weight. Seeing your doctor as directed is important to ensure you get the right medications and dosages.
But there is good news: “Even difficult-to-control hypertension can often be lowered with the right combination of treatments.” Pohlman says. “The key is knowing that you have it.”