Doctors usually define normal blood pressure as a reading that is less than 140/90 mmHg. This is normally referred to as 140 over 90, where the first number (e.g. 140) refers to systolic blood pressure, the blood pressure in the arteries when the heart is beating, and the second number (e.g. 90) refers to diastolic blood pressure, the blood pressure in the arteries when the heart is at rest between heartbeats.
Any blood pressure that is higher than 140/90 mmHg is called hypertension (the medical term for high blood pressure). Hypertension that isn’t treated can greatly increase a person’s risk of developing coronary heart disease, heart failure, kidney failure and stroke, so it is important that it is managed and treated.
The essential steps
Before suggesting any treatment, your doctor will probably carry out some tests to discover whether or not your high blood pressure has an underlying cause. These may include an electrocardiogram, or ECG, to check the health of your heart, a full blood count, kidney function tests, electrolytes (sodium, potassium and other blood salts), and an analysis of your urine. If there appears to be no underlying medical condition causing your high blood pressure, you have what doctors refer to as essential hypertension.
Essential hypertension accounts for 90 to 95 percent of cases of high blood pressure. Although essential hypertension can’t usually be cured, it can be treated to prevent complications. Your doctor may also ask you to have a cholesterol test in case you need medication or lifestyle changes to lower your lipid levels.
Your doctor will also review any current medicines you are taking. Some medicines can contribute to hypertension, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), oral contraceptives, corticosteroids and some medicines used for depression.
Your doctor will also want to check if you have any other risk factors, such as diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, angina, or a family history of angina or heart attack, so that your absolute risk of cardiovascular disease can be determined.
Making lifestyle changes
For some people, making some simple lifestyle changes may be all that’s needed to bring blood pressure down. The following steps can reduce high blood pressure and also prevent many people from developing it in the first place.
• Lose weight, if you are overweight.
Losing even a small amount of weight helps many people reduce their blood pressure without the need for medication. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, and choose foods that are low in saturated fat and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Your doctor or dietitian will be able to help you if you don’t know where to start.
• Reduce your salt intake.
Many canned, packaged and processed foods contain excessive amounts of salt (sodium chloride) so you should read the labels carefully and choose “low salt” or “salt free” wherever possible. Remove salt from your recipes wherever you can and limit smoked, cured, or processed meat and meat products.
• Give up smoking.
You should also make every attempt to give up smoking. Your doctor will be able to suggest the best quitting strategy for you to follow.