Aging, High Blood Pressure, and Healthy Lifestyle Habits
What Is Hypertension?
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a dangerous condition that becomes more common as people age. Blood pressure is the force of the blood pressing against the walls of the arteries as it travels away from the heart. The pressure is created by the heartbeat and normally rises during activity and then falls when we rest and relax. The term "hypertension" means that high blood pressure is continually high, even when we are calm and inactive.
Hypertension is sometimes referred to as a silent killer, since although it may have no obvious symptoms it increases the risk of several potentially dangerous or deadly diseases. These include heart attacks (also called myocardial infarction), heart failure, strokes, peripheral artery disease, kidney disease, and eye problems.
Luckily, although the risk of developing high blood pressure increases as we age, there are many things that we can do to lower this risk. Following a healthy lifestyle is very helpful for preventing hypertension. Getting regular medical checkups and seeking advice from a doctor are also important.
The information in this article is intended for general interest. Someone with hypertension should seek advice from their doctor.
Normal and Hypertension Blood Pressure Numbers
Blood pressure is usually measured in the brachial artery in the upper arm and requires two measurements. One finds the pressure when the heart is contracting (the systole phase of the heartbeat) and is known as systolic blood pressure. The second measurement determines the pressure when the heart is relaxed (the diastole phase of the heartbeat) and is known as diastolic blood pressure.
The units for blood pressure are mm of mercury (Hg). Normal blood pressure is currently considered to be slightly less than 120 mm of Hg (systolic blood pressure) over 80 mm of Hg (diastolic blood pressure). A person is considered to have hypertension if their systolic blood pressure is 140 mm of Hg or higher and their diastolic blood pressure is 90 mm of Hg or higher on two separate occasions, as determined by a medical professional. This blood pressure is often described as "140 over 90" or 140/90.
As the nurse in the video above points out, the symptoms of hypertension may be vague or nonexistent. This is why it's important for older people to check their blood pressure regularly.
High Blood Pressure and Aging Statistics
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website has a page on high blood pressure, which is referenced below. The page contains an interesting table showing the relationship between blood pressure and age in the United States.
At first glance the table may look depressing. It shows a continuous rise in the number of people with high blood pressure as age increases. The data in the table culminates in a 66.7% incidence of this condition for men aged 75 or older and a 78.5% incidence in women in the same age range.
There are at least two factors which suggest that the information in the table may not be as depressing as it seems. First, the number of people suffering from hypertension never reaches 100%, so it isn't inevitable that a person will have this condition as they age. Secondly, as in several other countries, the incidence of obesity is increasing in the United States population. Obesity is a known cause of hypertension. If the information in the table was based only on people of moderate weight the percentages may have been lower.
The CDC website also notes that some ethnic groups have a higher chance of developing hypertension than others. There does seem to be a genetic basis to hypertension, since several members of a family may develop the problem.
The CDC website has some other alarming statistics. It states that 30% of the US population has prehypertension. In this condition, the blood pressure is higher than normal but is not in the hypertension range. The condition is an indication that a person needs to change their lifestyle or get medical treatment in order to prevent their blood pressure from rising further. Prehypertension systolic blood pressure ranges from 120 to 139 mm Hg. Diastolic blood pressure ranges from 80 to 89 mm Hg.
Getting regular and reliable blood pressure checks is important, even if we feel well. Being diagnosed with prehypertension is not pleasant, but on the other hand it's good to know about the disorder before it becomes worse.
Why Are Older People More Likely to Develop Hypertension?
As we age, blood pressure often increases, even in people who are healthy and haven't had high blood pressure before. The systolic blood pressure is especially likely to increase. There may be several reasons for this rise in blood pressure.
The major cause of higher blood pressure in older people is probably the changes in the structure of the artery walls as we age. The left ventricle, which is the hardest working of the heart's four chambers, pumps blood into an artery called the aorta. This is the largest artery in the body. As people age, the wall of the aorta becomes thicker, stiffer, and less flexible. The resistance to blood flow increases and the heart has to pump harder to force the blood through the artery. This increases the blood pressure. The walls of the other arteries in the body also become thicker and stiffer.
Preventing High Blood Pressure
We will probably need to work harder at preventing hypertension as the years pass in order to outwit the changes in our body that make us prone to high blood pressure. Factors that can lead to this condition at any age include being overweight, not exercising, eating too much salt, drinking too much alcohol, and smoking.
Most older people need to pay careful attention to their diet and lifestyle and also need to exercise regularly to prevent their blood pressure from rising or to reduce the extent of the rise. An eating plan called the DASH diet has been created specifically to help people control their blood pressure. It's a healthy diet for everyone, however.
Although regular exercise is very helpful for controlling blood pressure, anyone who is very out of shape or very overweight or who has a health problem should check with their doctor before they start an exercise plan. They should also exercise gently to begin with and only gradually increase the intensity and duration of their chosen fitness activity.
The DASH Diet for Hypertension
The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) has been shown to be effective in controlling blood pressure in many people. It's sometimes referred to as an eating plan rather than a diet in order to stress the fact that we should all be following it, whether or not we have high blood pressure. The eating plan is supported by the NHLBI (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute), which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
The DASH eating plan includes the following components:
- fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- low-fat or fat-free diary products
- unsalted beans and lentils
- skinless poultry
- lean red meat in small amounts
- herbs and spices
- unsalted nuts and seeds in moderation
- small quantities of healthy vegetable oils
The diet is low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, total fat, red meat, salt, and added sugar.
Salt, Sodium, and the Dash Diet
The DASH diet recommends a maximum of 2300 milligrams of sodium a day and suggests that people try to reduce their intake to 1500 milligrams a day. Sodium in salt and other chemicals added to food has frequently been implicated in hypertension. It's been discovered that reducing the sodium level is very helpful in lowering high blood pressure.
Most sodium in a person's diet comes from prepared foods. Therefore it's important to read package labels before buying a product in order to discover the sodium level in the food. Sodium occurs in sodium chloride (table salt) but also in other chemicals added to processed foods, such as monosodium glutamate and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). Unprocessed and whole foods are usually better food choices than processed ones unless the processed foods are chosen very carefully.
We do need some sodium in our diet, but the amount that we get from unprocessed foods is sufficient. Fruits and vegetables are valuable additions to the diet because they are low in sodium but high in potassium. This improves the potassium to sodium ratio in our bodies and helps to lower blood pressure.
Monitoring Blood Pressure
Older people should have regular blood pressure checks to make sure that their efforts to keep the pressure reasonably low are working. If a drug store device is used to determine blood pressure it might be a good idea to visit more than one store to compare the values. The devices are said to be quite accurate if they are working properly, but they may not be well maintained. Devices that measure blood pressure in the home are also available. The most accurate determination of blood pressure is one made by a medical professional.
It's important to keep in mind that a single blood pressure reading may not be correct. Several factors can increase the pressure temporarily, including exercise and tension. It's uncertain whether chronic stress can cause hypertension. Some researchers believe that it does, while others say that there is no link.
If a person notices that despite their best efforts their blood pressure is increasing, a doctor's advice should be sought. There are medications which can be prescribed to reduce blood pressure when other techniques don't work. Although some people may not like the idea of using a medication for a long time, the consequences of continuously high blood pressure can be serious. Even if medication must be taken, a healthy diet and lifestyle has many health benefits and is definitely worth following.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2012 Linda Crampton