Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Each May, health professionals hold blood pressure screening events across Canada to mark Hypertension Month. “The main thrust of the campaign is to make sure people are testing their blood pressure regularly,” says Angelique Berg, CEO, Hypertension Canada. Being proactive is important. Hypertension is the leading cause of death and disability.

But the good news? It is preventable.

Time to cuff up and get your reading

Monitoring blood pressure takes only a few minutes. Measuring your blood pressure regularly serves as an alert to any underlying concerns. An estimated 7.5 million people in Canada have hypertension (high blood pressure), but almost one in five don’t know they have it.

Blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day, so getting a reliable reading is important. Before you are screened, avoid smoking or drinking caffeine 30 minutes before, and don’t have your blood pressure taken if you are in pain or distressed.

Blood pressure readings can flag serious health problems. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Medisave UK.

Blood pressure readings involve two measurements explains Dr. Shadab Rana, specialist, Knowledge Exchange, at Heart and Stroke. The first number – systolic –measures the force of pressure when your heart contracts and pushes out blood. The second number – diastolic – is the measure of when your heart relaxes between beats. “Together, they measure the force of blood against your blood vessels or arteries,” she says. Too much force over time can lead to serious health problems.

What the numbers mean

Blood pressure readings fall into four general categories:

  • Normal blood pressure. Your blood pressure is considered normal if it’s below 120/80.
  • Elevated blood pressure. The systolic range is 120 to 129 with diastolic pressure below 80. It tends to get worse over time unless it’s controlled.
  • Stage 1 hypertension. Systolic pressure ranges from 130 to 139 or a diastolic pressure range from 80 to 89.
  • Stage 2 hypertension. More severe hypertension, with a systolic pressure of 140+ or a diastolic pressure of 90 +

Taking control of blood pressure

As with many medical conditions, ethnicity, gender and age are some predictors of blood pressure. For instance, arteries become scarred and less elastic with age. And, this damage is accelerated by high blood pressure. “As the arteries stiffen, the heart has to work even harder, causing the heart muscle to become thicker, weaker and less able to pump blood,” says Dr. Rana.

As a result, the heart, brain, and kidneys can be affected leading to a heart attack, a stroke or kidney failure.

While there are some things out of your control, there are more things within your control to optimize your blood pressure. If your blood pressure is normal, your lifestyle choices can help to keep it that way. If it is higher, you can positively change that.

The important role diet plays

Diet plays a significant role. “Research has shown that following a plan for healthy eating can reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure and lower already elevated blood pressure,” says Dr. Rana. The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension) Diet. Studies have found that this diet, which includes several daily servings of fruit and vegetables, low-fat dairy products and food lower in saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol, has been able to lower blood pressure within two weeks with the added benefit of lowing cholesterol.

Foods high in salt (think processed ones), alcohol and caffeine are not beneficial for maintaining healthy blood pressure. And, of course, smoking is a big no-no.

Exercising can maintain a healthy weight and keep stress in check ­– both beneficial for blood pressure.

Current and emerging treatments

When lifestyle alone does not maintain a healthy blood pressure, prescription drug options are available. These include: alpha, beta, and calcium channel blockers, ACE inhibitors and diuretics.

There is plenty of research now underway to find new solutions. For example, a Heart and Stroke-funded study is now taking a closer look at exactly how high salt intake leads to hypertension at a molecular level. Early results confirm that a high consumption of salt activates brain cells responsible for producing a hormone called vasopression via an increase in sodium concentration. Elevated levels of this hormone upset the optimum fluid balance in the body necessary to maintain healthy blood pressure.

Time for blood pressure screening

If you haven’t had your blood pressure taken recently, Hypertension Month is the perfect time to do through your healthcare provider, screening clinic or pharmacy. While some people experience symptoms like headaches, nosebleeds, or shortness of breath, most people don’t have any symptoms or only show these signs once their blood pressure has reached a dangerous stage.

Berg says Canadians are becoming more knowledgeable about hypertension – but slowly. It’s one manageable way to be proactive about our health. “We’re working to get it into the public eye.”