Published on 05/21/08

Hypertension hazardous, but controllable

By Allie Byrd
University of Georgia

Hypertension is the most common chronic disease in the U.S. and is becoming a major health concern for Americans of all ages, says a University of Georgia specialist.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is excessive force of the blood on the blood vessels as it circulates. It can cause problems such as heart attack, heart failure, vision loss, stroke and kidney disease, says Connie Crawley, a nutrition and health specialist with UGA Cooperative Extension.

Know your numbers

A healthy blood pressure is defined as a systolic pressure of 120 mm Hg and a diastolic pressure of 80 mm Hg. Hypertension is defined as a systolic pressure of 140 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure of 90 mm Hg or greater, said Crawley.

Although genetics and family history can influence hypertension, she said, unhealthy choices such as smoking, eating certain foods, inactivity and being overweight cause it, too.

Unless a person is experiencing extremely high blood pressure, there are typically no symptoms. The condition can often go untreated.

“It is important for people to keep track of their blood pressure and bring it to the attention of their healthcare provider if it is not in control,” she said. “Sometimes the health care professional is focusing on other health issues and may not notice an elevated blood pressure until the patient mentions it.”

Lose weight, reduce stress

Lifestyle changes and medication are usually combined to treat the problem, she said.

Stress management is helpful in reducing hypertension. Beneficial practices include deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, meditation, exercise, prayer or reducing responsibilities, Crawley says.

When medication is prescribed, three to four medications may be needed to lower blood pressure to the desired range.

Weight loss can also prove beneficial to controlling hypertension.

“Losing weight helps the most if the person is overweight,” she said. “A person does not have to lose to an ideal body weight to see a positive result. Just a loss of 10 to 20 pounds is often enough to see an improvement.”

Becoming more physically active, quitting smoking, keeping alcohol intake at a moderate level and eating more healthy foods rather than salty restaurant and convenience foods can also help reduce hypertension.

Follow DASH diet

Following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, diet has been proven to lower blood pressure up to 11 points, Crawley said.

“It is one of the few clinically proven meal plans to treat a disease,” she said.

The diet includes eating eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables, at least three servings of whole grains and three servings of nonfat dairy foods each day. Only one to two ounces of meat are allowed per meal. The diet also requires eating several servings of cooked legumes, like beans and peas, and nuts several times a week.

Allie Byrd is a writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.