May marks National High Blood Pressure Education Month, dedicated to raising awareness of a disorder that claims more lives each year than obesity, pre-diabetes and high cholesterol combined, accounting for about 1,000 deaths a day in the US, according to a 2015 paper published in Journal of Human Hypertension.
In most countries, more than 80 percent of adults have blood pressure levels that increase their risk for early death from cardiovascular disease (CVD)–including heart attacks, strokes and heart failure, according to a recent paper published in European Heart Journal Supplements. Yet high blood pressure (HBP) is both treatable and preventable.
Here are common misconceptions about HBP (also called hypertension), along with the facts patients need to know to protect their health.
Myth #1: Most people with high blood pressure experience symptoms, such as headaches, nosebleeds or dizziness.
Fact: HBP is called “a silent killer” because it often causes no symptoms as it slowly damages blood vessels and vital organs, including the heart, brain and kidneys. One study found that people with higher systolic blood pressure (the top number in blood pressure readings) were less likely to experience headaches than those with healthier blood pressure, perhaps because HBP stiffens blood vessels, which may damage nerve endings and reduce pain, the American Heart Association reports.
A study of patients hospitalized for hypertensive crisis–a medical emergency in which systolic pressure is 180 or higher or diastolic pressure (the bottom number) is 110 or higher–found that only 17 percent of these patients suffered nosebleeds. In some cases, hypertensive crisis may also cause dizziness, severe anxiety or shortness of breath.
The AHA recommends having your blood pressure checked at least once every two years, or more often if advises by your medical provider.
Myth #2: If your blood pressure is below 140/90, there’s nothing to worry about.
Fact: About 30 percent of adults have prehypertension, defined as systolic pressure of 120 to 139 or diastolic pressure of 80 to 89. Having even one number in this range, even if the other is normal (below 120/80), still counts as prehypertension, which is also known as “borderline high blood pressure.”
In a 2014 meta-analysis of studies involving more than 700,000 people, published in Neurology, people with prehypertension were 66 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than those with normal BP. For people at the high end of the prehypertensive range (BP of 130-139/85 to 89 mmHg), stroke risk was nearly doubled. “This meta-analysis provides further evidence to physicians and patients that we need to take blood pressure seriously even at borderline levels,” commented Ralph L. Sacco, MD, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida.
Myth #3: Elevated blood pressure always requires medication.
Fact: For people with prehypertension, said Dr. Sacco, “The first step is lifestyle modification with increasing physical activity, losing weight and eating healthy including reducing salt consumption. If these do not work or are unsuccessful, then medications may be warranted, particularly among those with elevated risk of stroke such as family history, diabetes, or other vascular conditions.”
Research also shows that the right diet can also significantly lower BP in those with full-blown hypertension. For example, in one study, following the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods, for eight weeks reduced BP from an average of 146/85 to 134/82 mmHg, compared to a control diet.
While it’s likely that your physician will prescribe medication as well as lifestyle changes if your blood pressure 140/90 or above, following your treatment plan carefully can significantly reduce risk for heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney disease, and other potential complications of HBP.