High Blood Pressure: The Quiet Killer

You can’t see it, you can’t feel it, and unless you get checked, you won’t even know you have it.

That makes high blood pressure, or hypertension, a quiet killer, one that slowly damages your blood vessels, heart, and eyes while simultaneously increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and kidney disease. High blood pressure results in stiff, inflexible arteries that are virtual magnets for cholesterol and other blood components that form the gunk known as plaque. If you already have this gunk, blood rushing past at high force is just what it takes to nick the “cap” off mounds of plaque, setting the dominoes in motion for a heart attack.

One in five Americans have high blood pressure, and nearly a third don’t know they have it. Many of the rest of us are at risk, as blood pressure slowly creeps up with age. Here’s how to make your readings healthy.

1. Every morning, take a brisk 15-minute walk. Amazingly, you don’t need a lot of exercise to make a difference in your blood pressure. When Japanese researchers asked 168 inactive volunteers with high blood pressure to exercise at a health club for different amounts of time each week for eight weeks, blood pressure dropped almost as much in those who exercised 30-90 minutes a week as in those who exercised more than 90 minutes a week.

2. Write “take medication” on your calendar every day. Twenty-five percent of the time, when your blood pressure hasn’t dropped after you’ve started medication, the reason is that you forgot to take your pills.

3. Buy a home blood pressure kit. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that home blood pressure testing provides a better overall picture of blood pressure than measurement in a doctor’s office. In the study, office measurement failed to identify 13 percent of patients who had high blood pressure only in the office but not at home (called “white-coat hypertension”). It also failed to identify 9 percent of people who had high blood pressure at home but not in the doctor’s office. Another study, this one presented at the 2004 European Society of Hypertension meeting, found that people who monitored their blood pressure at home had lower overall blood pressure than those who only had their pressure taken at the doctor’s office. A good home blood pressure kit costs under $100, a small price to pay for peace of mind.

4. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons flaxseed over your yogurt in the morning and mix 2 tablespoons into your ice cream, spaghetti sauce, or other food later in the day. One small study found that adding 4 tablespoons of the crunchy stuff significantly lowered systolic blood pressure (a strong predictor of heart disease) in postmenopausal women with a history of heart disease. Flaxseed is rich in many nutrients and in fiber. Its effects on blood pressure are likely due to its high content of omega-3 fatty acids.

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