Your blood pressure is comprised of two numbers. The top number is called the systolic blood pressure. This number represents the pressure inside your arteries when your heart is contracting. The lower number is called diastolic blood pressure. This number represents pressure inside your arteries when your heart is relaxed. Blood pressure is measured in units of millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
A healthy blood pressure is under 120/80 mm Hg. Blood pressure can change minute to minute, but if your blood pressure is consistently elevated, you may have a condition called hypertension. Unfortunately about one-third of American adults have hypertension, or high blood pressure.
Most of the time, people with high blood pressure don’t have any symptoms. However, while you may not immediately feel the effects of high blood pressure, your heart is working harder and harder everyday to pump against a higher pressure in order to supply blood to the body. Eventually, this can lead to heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, and other serious conditions.
There are many factors that contribute to high blood pressure. You may be at higher risk if someone in your family has high blood pressure. The older you get, the less elastic your blood vessels becomes, which increases blood pressure. African Americans and men also seem to be at higher risk at developing high blood pressure. For that reason, high blood pressure is called a “silent killer,” which is why it’s important to have regular doctor visits to have your blood pressure checked.
While you can’t control your race or sex, luckily, there are modifiable risk factors for high blood pressure that you can control:
1. Eat a healthy diet
The most important dietary change for someone who has high blood pressure is to limit salt (sodium) intake. You want to limit the intake to no more than 1,500 mg per day, which means you need to get used to reading food labels!
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat protein, and low-fat dairy products
2. Lose weight (if you’re overweight)
It’s important to lose weight safely and a few pounds at a time. Even losing 3% to 5% of your body weight can help reduce the workload on your heart.
3. Stay active!
Try to be active at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week. Little things you could do are walk/bike instead of driving, or even just parking further away to get a little bit of activity in each day.
4. Avoid or quit smoking.
Smoking raises your blood pressure and is also a risk factor for many other conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and atherosclerosis.
5. Avoid or cut down on alcohol
Alcohol can increase your blood pressure and it is recommended that individuals should drink no more than two drinks per day. A drink is considered one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits, or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.
Vivian is currently a fourth year medical student at UC Davis and will be applying to ophthalmology residency this year. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in Public Health and a minor in Global Poverty. She has a master’s degree in Clinical Research from UC Davis and has just completed a year as a T32 Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow, a program supported by the National Institutes of Health, and UC Davis Clinical and Translational Science Center.
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