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Knowing Your Numbers Can Help Save Your Life

This month, across the country health professionals are raising awareness about the risks of hypertension, also called high blood pressure, and encouraging communities to keep blood pressure at healthy levels.

What is hypertension and why is it harmful?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States and many cardiovascular health problems are linked to hypertension. One out of every three adults has hypertension and if it is not controlled, it can lead to stroke, heart failure, heart attack, kidney failure, or other serious health problems.

This condition occurs when a person’s blood pressure rises and stays high over time. As a person’s blood pressure goes up, the force of blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels also increases. This can increase the stress on your blood vessels, resulting in damage, and can make your heart work harder, resulting in risks to your heart. To be in a healthy range, aim for a blood pressure reading of 140 over 80 or less.  If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, your blood pressure target is 139 over 89 or less.

Your blood pressure consists of two numbers—systolic and diastolic. The systolic number is the first number and shows how hard the blood pushes with each pump of the heart. The diastolic number is the second number and tells us the blood pressure when the heart is relaxed and filling in preparationfor the next squeeze. So, a systolic pressure of 119 and a diastolic pressure of 79 is usually read as “119 over 79” and written as 119/79.

Are you at risk for hypertension?

Many factors can contribute to having high blood pressure,like family history. When your immediate family members have high blood pressure, you have an increased likelihood of developing it. Your lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking habits, alcohol intake) may increase your risk too.

Certain communities have higher rates of blood pressure than others as well. According to the American Heart Association, high blood pressure is highest within the African American community and develops at an earlier age than other ethnic groups.

In many cases, high blood pressure has no symptoms. The only way to know if your blood pressure is high is to have it checked. Most people don’t know they have it until they go to the doctor for some other reason.

How can you prevent hypertension?

There are five lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent high blood pressure.

Try to eat less salt and learn about the DASH eating plan (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). This diet is low in fat, and includes fruits, whole grains, poultry, fish, nuts, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. There are many low sodium or reduced salt recipes to add more flavor to these healthy options. Plan to get enough physical activity or exercise for about 30 minutes each day, on most days of the week.  Limit your alcohol intake also to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

If you have hypertension, how can you take control?

Make it a priority to get your blood pressure checked once a year. You may need to check your blood pressure more often at first or until your blood pressure comes into the normal range. Follow the advice of your doctor including taking medicine exactly as prescribed. Some patients learn how to check blood pressure at home. By doing so, you can monitor your blood pressure and reach out for care if your numbers are consistently elevated.

More resources can be found at kp.org.

Ameya Kulkarni, MD FSCAI, was interviewed for this article, and is proud to be a practicing InterventionalCardiologist and Chief of Cardiology for the Northern Virginia Service Area for the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group.  Dr. Kulkarni cares for patients at the Kaiser Permanente Tysons Corner Medical Center. This article was contributed by Kaiser Permanente, a regional not-for-profit health system which provides top-rated care and coverage for its nearly 800,000 members in the Mid-Atlantic States region. The region achieved a rate of 92% for controlling high blood pressure, according to the 2018 National Committee for Quality Assurance’s Quality Compass® data. The annual Quality Compass data assesses the performance of nearly 400 Private/Commercial health plans nationwide spanning all lines of business on critical clinical quality and service standards. This controlling high blood pressure rate of 92% was the highest result among commercial health plans participating. The annual Quality Compass database includes scores from the Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set, or HEDIS, a tool that is used by more than 90 percent of America’s health plans to measure performance on important dimensions of care and service, including cancer screenings, immunizations, maternal care and cardiovascular conditions.

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