Blood pressure: The silent killer and how to avoid it

HIGH blood pressure can cause a host of serious, and potentially fatal, problems, but often without any obvious symptoms, hence it’s dubbed a ’silent killer’.

The condition, also known as hypertension, is the biggest known cause of premature death and disability in Ireland, due to the strokes, heart attacks and heart disease it can cause, and is also a risk factor for kidney disease and dementia.

Contrary to popular belief, raised blood pressure is usually symptomless.

“It’s a myth that it causes headaches,” says Professor Gareth Beevers, an expert in hypertension.

“I did a study which found there’s absolutely no association between headaches and high blood pressure — being diagnosed as hypertensive and having to come to hospital does cause headaches connected to the labelling and treatment, rather than the high blood pressure causing it.”

While the over 55s are most at risk, any adult can suffer from the problem, Beevers adds.

It’s also more common in people who are obese, consume a lot of salt, have a strong family history of hypertension, and alcoholics.

Plus, Beevers says that it’s been recognised recently that women who’ve had high blood pressure in pregnancy have a four-fold increased chance of suffering from high blood pressure in later life.

So what exactly is blood pressure? Basically, it’s the pressure of blood in the arteries. If it’s too high it can narrow the arteries and blood vessels, leading to brain or heart damage, or clots forming.

As well as having your blood pressure checked by a medical professional, Beevers recommends that people also buy their own blood pressure kits to measure it at home, and advises that the ones with arm cuffs, rather than wrist cuffs, tend to be more reliable.

In about 5% of people with high blood pressure, there’s an underlying cause — usually kidney disease or hormone disorders. The remaining 95% have what’s termed as essential hypertension, usually caused by lifestyle factors or genetics.

But there’s no convincing evidence that long-term stress causes chronic high blood pressure, says Beevers.

Ways you can reduce high blood pressure include:

* Cut salt by eating less processed food and not adding extra salt to meals or cooking.

* Increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. Fruit and vegetables contain potassium that helps lower blood pressure.

* Drink alcohol in moderation.

* Increase activity levels.

* Lose weight if necessary. Excess weight puts extra strain on the heart.

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