AMARILLO More than half of Americans over age 60 have high blood pressure, but that does not mean it is part of normal aging, according to a Texas Cooperative Extension specialist.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is sometimes called the “silent killer” because its symptoms are not always seen or felt, said Andrew B. Crocker, Extension gerontology health specialist.
“You can have hypertension and still feel just fine,” Crocker said. “However, hypertension is a major health problem. If not treated, it can lead to stroke, heart disease, eye problems or kidney failure, among other things.”
The good news, he said, is high blood pressure can be prevented or controlled.
Whether going in for a check-up or major surgery, having one’s blood pressure checked is a standard procedure for health providers.
So getting the numbers is not the problem. But, understanding them can be, Crocker said.
The top number is the systolic pressure, which tells how much blood pushes against the blood vessel walls as the heart beats. The bottom number measures the pressure while the heart relaxes between beats. This is the diastolic pressure.
“If your blood pressure is normal, according to current recommendations, your systolic pressure is less than 120 and your diastolic pressure is less than 80,” Crocker said.
For older people, the top number often is high (greater than 140), but the bottom number is normal (less than 80), he said. This problem is called isolated systolic hypertension, the most common form of high blood pressure in older people, and can lead to serious health problems.
“If you are diagnosed with hypertension, your health care provider will probably want you to make changes in your daily habits to try and lower those numbers,” he said.
The doctor may also ask individuals to check their blood pressure at home at different times of the day, Crocker said. If the numbers are still high after several checks, he or she will probably suggest medication, as well as changes in diet and exercise.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute suggests the following healthy habits to help control or prevent high blood pressure:
Keep a healthy weight. Being overweight adds to the risk of high blood pressure.
Exercise every day. Moderate exercise may lower the risk of hypertension and heart disease. Try to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week or more. Be sure to check with a health provider before starting a new exercise program.
Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods. Also, make sure to get enough potassium. Fresh fruits and vegetables are high in potassium. If using packaged foods, read the nutrition labels to choose those that have more potassium.
Cut down on salt and sodium. Most Americans eat more salt and sodium than they need. A low-salt diet might help lower blood pressure.
Drink less alcohol. Drinking alcohol can affect blood pressure, as it decreases the amount of water in the body. As a general rule, men shouldn’t have more than two drinks a day, women not more than one drink a day.
“If lifestyle changes alone do not control your high blood pressure, your health provider may tell you to take blood pressure pills,” Crocker said. “You may need to take medicine for the rest of your life.
“It is important to note any significant changes in your health or level of functioning once you start taking blood pressure medication,” he said. “The dose may need to be adjusted to suit your needs, and this may take several attempts.”
Other things to remember are:
All health providers should be told about high blood pressure and steps that are being taken to treat it.
Health providers should be told about all drugs being taken, even over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and dietary supplements. They may affect blood pressure and how well medicine works.
Blood pressure pills should be taken at the same time each day. Don’t double a dose if one is missed.
Blood pressure should be tested at home between check-ups. Relax quietly for five minutes, sitting with feet on the floor and your back leaning against something, before taking your blood pressure. The arm should rest on a support at heart level. Keep the results to share with the doctor.
“With a little effort and attention, you can make great strides in preventing hypertension from affecting you and your family,” Crocker said. “You may also be able to effectively control your or your loved one’s hypertension.”
For more information, visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/index.htm .