Detail image for February 2023 Health & Wellness Guide story.

Illustration by Branden Barker

Heart disease knows no bounds.

Written by Lennie Omalza

It is the leading cause of death in both men and women throughout the U.S., claiming more than 2,000 lives every single day. Hypertension, more commonly referred to as high blood pressure, is the leading risk factor for heart disease. Almost 50% of American adults have it — though many don’t even know it. Fortunately, hypertension is both treatable and preventable. Here’s what you should know:

What is Hypertension/high blood pressure?

Blood pressure refers to the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels. If that force is consistently too high, that’s hypertension. When you have hypertension, extra work is being put on your heart and blood vessels, which makes them work harder and less efficiently. As time goes on, the friction and force of the high blood pressure damages the tissues inside your arteries. This damage makes the arteries less elastic, decreasing the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart and leading to cardiovascular disease.

“People don’t have sickness from high blood pressure itself,” explains Nina Vasavada, M.D., who is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Louisville Physicians Outpatient Center and one of the few doctors in Louisville who are board certified as a Clinical Specialist in hypertension. “They have sickness from what the high blood pressure is doing to your body.”

How is blood pressure measured and what is too high?

Blood pressure is measured using two numbers: systolic and diastolic. Systolic blood pressure measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats, and diastolic blood pressure measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart is resting between beats. These numbers are typically expressed as a fraction. You might see “120/80,” which is expressed as “120 over 80.” The guidelines for what is normal, elevated, or high depends on age and medical condition. For most people, a reading that is less than 120/80 is considered normal.

“In the last few years, there have been new guidelines for high blood pressure measurements,” says Dr. Vasavada. “[That includes] new guidelines for high blood pressure in pregnancy, [as well as] hypertension in kidney disease.”

What causes hypertension?

Hypertension typically develops over time because of unhealthy lifestyle choices. This can include not getting enough regular physical activity; having certain health conditions, such as diabetes or obesity; smoking or vaping; and having a poor-quality diet.

There are also several factors that increase a person’s chance of developing hypertension. The risk of developing high blood pressure, for example, increases with age — and after the age of 65, women are at higher risk than men. Hypertension is also particularly common in the Black community and with people who have a family history of high blood pressure.  According to the American Heart Association, approximately 55% of Black adults have high blood pressure with a disproportionate rate suffering from severe hypertension.

How can hypertension be prevented?

Dr. Vasavada stresses that the first and most important step toward preventing hypertension — and starting treatment, if necessary — is to know your numbers. “Once you know your numbers, you can use that information,” she says. “Go to your primary care doctor, address it with them, and see what the next steps are. Hypertension is massively underdiagnosed, [and] that’s one of the main things that [our] community can work on fixing.”

7 Ways to Control High Blood Pressure at Home

1. Avoid extra pounds, as blood pressure often increases with weight.  

2. Exercise. Getting at least 30 minutes of regular physical activity every day can lower blood pressure and prevent elevated blood pressure from becoming high blood pressure. 

3. Maintain a healthy diet and reduce your salt intake. Even a small sodium reduction can reduce high blood pressure. Consider DASH — or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension — which is a healthy-eating plan that was designed to treat or prevent hypertension. Recommended servings include: 

  • Grains: 6 to 8 servings per day 
  • Vegetables: 4 to 5 servings per day 
  • Fruits: 4 to 5 servings per day 
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products: 2 to 3 servings per day 
  • Lean meats, poultry and fish: six 1-ounce servings or fewer per day 
  • Fats and oils: 2 to 3 servings per week 
  • Nuts, seeds and legumes: 4 to 5 servings per week  
  • Sweets and added sugars: 5 servings or fewer per week 

4. Limit your alcohol intake. Too much alcohol can raise blood pressure by several points and reduce the effectiveness of blood pressure medications. 

5. Quit smoking, as it lowers blood pressure and improves overall health. 

6. Get enough sleep. Getting fewer than six hours of sleep every night for several weeks can increase blood pressure. 

7. Reduce stress, as chronic emotional stress can contribute to hypertension.

Detail image for February 2023 Health & Wellness Guide story.

Here’s How to Take Your Blood Pressure with an At-home Device 

BEFORE: Don’t smoke, drink caffeinated beverages, or exercise within 30 minutes before measuring your blood pressure. Also, be sure to empty your bladder and have at least five minutes of quiet rest before getting started.  

DURING: Sit on a hard surface — like a dining chair rather than a sofa — to ensure your back is straight and supported. Place your feet flat on the floor and do not cross your legs. Support your arm on a flat surface, like a table, with your upper arm at heart level. Make sure the device cuff is not obstructed by clothing, and the bottom of the cuff is placed directly above the bend of your elbow.  

TIPS: Each time you check your blood pressure, take two or three readings one minute apart and record every result. Do this at the same time each day. If you’re being treated for hypertension, start your readings two weeks after any changes in your treatment plan.