WHILE many of us associate high blood pressure with a reddened complexion, sweating, jitters and other outward signs of stress; in reality, it’s usually much more difficult to spot.
Unfortunately, this is one of the great problems with high blood pressure or “hypertension” — it often goes undetected until after it’s had its damaging effect. The statistics show us that a “rule of halves” prevails here, where only around half of the people who suffer from the condition know that they actually have it.
Of this 50%, only about half are prescribed the most effective medications, and of the ones who are; only about half actually take them. So we can deduce that just one in eight people with high blood pressure receive and implement the treatment required to address their condition.
High blood pressure is common in Ireland, especially among older adults. The SLAN study in 2008 reported that only one third of Irish men over the age of 45 years had ideal blood pressure. A further 7% achieved optimal levels by taking medication, but strikingly, 60% of men aged 45 or older had the condition.
The situation with women was only marginally better — 47% of females aged 45 years or older had ideal blood pressure, with a further 10% reaching this ideal range on medication, meaning that the remaining 43% of women were hypertensive.
If left untreated high blood pressure can seriously damage your health. Usually this damage occurs when blood which is being pumped at high pressure tears at the delicate “carpet” of cells lining our blood vessels. This causes cholesterol particles to be drawn to the site of damage. Here they begin to accumulate in the lining of the blood vessel causing a “plaque” to form which partially blocks blood flow.
When a clot forms in this partially blocked vessel which completely blocks the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the working tissue in blood vessels supplying the heart, a heart attack occurs. In the brain, the same process results in a stroke. High blood pressure can also directly damage small blood vessels in the eyes and kidneys leading to blindness and kidney failure respectively.
TACKLING THE PROBLEM
To address this issue, we must appreciate the factors that contribute to high blood pressure. Some are obvious.
For example, we know that obesity, low exercise levels and high alcohol intake are potent factors in raising blood pressure. There are other less obvious contributors, too. Low fruit and vegetable intake, low consumption of dairy foods and low intake of oily fish can exacerbate the problem.
Additionally, poor maternal nutrition causing low birth weight can predispose babies to high blood pressure in later life.
So what’s to be done? Perhaps the most important thing is to “know your numbers”. Ask your GP or practice nurse to test your blood pressure and also to explain the result to you the next time you visit. This should be done twice yearly.
The other important steps you can take are straightforward. Have at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day, along with three to four servings of low fat dairy foods. If you can, add in oily fish like mackerel or salmon three times a week, limit your alcohol intake, get in four or five walks per week and shed a few pounds.
You’ll be happily surprised at just how much those numbers improve.
* Dr Daniel McCartney is a lecturer in Human Nutrition & Dietetics at DIT.
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