Dr Caitlin O’Connor of Tralee Medical Centre, St Brendan’s Park, offers advice on getting high blood pressure under control…
Blood pressure is a measure of the force that the blood applies to the walls of the arteries as it flows through them. It’s normal for blood pressure to increase when you exert yourself, or when you feel stressed or anxious. But if your blood pressure is consistently higher than the healthy level when at rest, this is high blood pressure (hypertension).
You can get high blood pressure if the walls of your larger arteries lose their elasticity and become rigid.
About three in 10 adults have high blood pressure. It’s much more common in older people – seven out of 10 people over 70 have high blood pressure.
Most people with high blood pressure don’t have any symptoms.
If you have very high blood pressure, or a rapid rise in blood pressure, you may have headaches, problems with your vision, fits or black-outs. If you have high blood pressure, you have an increased risk of major illnesses including chest pain, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney damage or damaged sight.
More than nine in 10 people with high blood pressure have what is called primary or essential hypertension. This means that it has no single clear cause. Although the exact cause of primary hypertension isn’t fully understood, it’s known that some factors to do with your lifestyle can contribute. These include:
• Obesity (being very overweight)
• Drinking a lot of alcohol – especially if you binge drink
• Lack of exercise
• Your diet
• If someone else in your family has high blood pressure, you also have a higher risk of developing it.
As you might not have any symptoms, your GP may diagnose high blood pressure when you visit for a different reason. It’s a good idea to have a regular check-up with your GP, especially if you’re over 50.
The result is expressed as two numbers, such as 120/80mmHg.
The first figure – the systolic blood pressure – is a measure of the pressure when your heart muscle is contracted and pumping blood. This is the maximum pressure in your blood system.
The second figure – the diastolic blood pressure – is the pressure between heart beats when your heart is resting and filling with blood. This is the minimum pressure in your blood system.
Hypertension is defined as a consistently increased systolic blood pressure of 140 or over and/or a diastolic blood pressure of 90 or over.
If you have diabetes, your blood pressure should be lower than this – ideally less than 130/80.
You’re likely to need long-term treatment for high blood pressure as it isn’t curable. You may not need much treatment if you only have slightly raised blood pressure, but regular monitoring is important.
Your GP or nurse is likely to discuss lifestyle changes which might help. For example, he or she might advise you to:
• Stop smoking
• Change your diet to a low-fat, low-salt diet that includes fruit and vegetables
• Cut down on alcohol
• Cut down on coffee and high-caffeine drinks, such as cola
• Take some regular, moderate exercise
• Lose any excess weight
• It may also help to try to reduce the stress in your life to prevent short-term rises in blood pressure – try relaxation techniques or meditation.
If your blood pressure remains high, your GP may prescribe you one or more antihypertensive medicine. The medicines your GP prescribes will depend on a number of factors, including your age and ethnicity. It may take time to find the best treatment for you; one that balances benefits against any side-effects. It’s important to be committed to taking your medication every day even if you don’t have any symptoms of high blood pressure.