I’ll do it myself!’ announces my fiercely independent (when it suits her!) 3 year old. Often it’s these sorts of little moments that jolt me into realising that the kids are growing up; they don’t need me in the same way they used to. Oh, and I’m growing up too – recently passing a mini milestone birthday, which has made me more aware that time is marching inexorably on. And time can take its toll on our bodies. In my twenties, I didn’t worry too much about long-term health implications. As I’ve seen family members grow older and be affected by certain health problems, it’s made me think about my own long-term health. If insha Allah I live to be a grandmother, I would like to be a fit and active one, able to enjoy my grandchildren. In many families there are particular health problems that crop up in the older generations. In this series of articles I will focus on three of these – high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
High Blood Pressure
What is it?
Essentially blood pressure is a measure of the pressure of blood in the arteries taken as two figures, for example 140 over 80. The top figure is a measure of the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts, while the bottom is the measure when the heart is at rest between beats. High blood pressure forces the heart to pump harder thereby weakening the organ and also puts strain on the arteries.
There are usually no symptoms of high blood pressure so it can be a silent killer. The NHS (National Health Service) in England estimates that about 30% of adults have high blood pressure but don’t know it. So it’s important to have yours checked at least every five years and at least once a year for older people, those with diabetes and those with a previous high blood pressure reading.
In most cases the cause of high blood pressure is not known. Other conditions such as kidney problems can lead to high blood pressure. The likelihood of having the condition increases with age, with about half of people over 65 in the UK living with high blood pressure. It is more prevalent in people of Afro-Caribbean origin, people from the Indian sub-continent and those with a family history of the condition.
Risks when condition is untreated
Usually the higher the blood pressure the greater the risk.
Heart – As the heart and arteries are forced to work harder, this increases the risk of heart attack and heart disease.
Brain – It can lead to a stroke; high blood pressure is also associated with certain forms of dementia.
Kidneys – It is linked to kidney disease.
Limbs – It can cause peripheral arterial disease in the legs.
A blood pressure reading of 140 over 90 or higher is considered to be a high reading. For every increase of 20 in the top reading the threat of cardiovascular death doubles. So a person with blood pressure of 160 over 90 will have double the risk compared to a person with blood pressure of 140 over 90.
If a person is overweight, losing weight is recommended. This has the potential to reduce blood pressure by up to 2.5mm Hg (top reading) for each excess kilo lost. So losing 2 kilos could reduce blood pressure from 160 over 80 to 155 over 80.
Exercise is also very important. Any activity that increases your heartbeat and makes you feel warm and slightly short of breath counts. 30 minutes of exercise on 5 or more days per week is an ideal goal. This could reduce blood pressure by 2 -10 mm Hg.
A healthy diet is also effective at lowering blood pressure. Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, ideally this should be 7 to 9. Avoid high fat foods. Eat 2-3 portions of fish per week, at least one of which should be oily, e.g. mackerel or salmon. Eat lean meat and poultry. Use sunflower or olive oil and limit salt consumption. Drink no more than 4 cups a day of tea, coffee and soft drinks containing caffeine. This can reduce blood pressure by up to 11 mm Hg.
If medication is required there are many available. It is usual to require more than one to reduce blood pressure to within a normal range. In the majority of patients, medication will be needed for life.
Relaxation therapy, stress management and yoga may be effective for people whose high blood pressure is stress induced. A small monitor can be worn to measure blood pressure throughout the day and alert the wearer when the level becomes too high, this allows the patient to take steps to reduce their blood pressure.
Traditional Chinese medicine provides treatment for high blood pressure. Studies have indicated that co-enzyme Q10, garlic and hawthorn supplements are also effective at reducing blood pressure.
Clinical trials are on-going on devices that can be inserted into the body to reduce blood pressure. One of these involves placing small tubes into the femoral artery and vein in the groin allowing blood to flow between the artery and the vein, so potentially reducing blood pressure. It is being trialled on patients whose high blood pressure cannot be successfully controlled with lifestyle changes or medication.
Having a healthy diet and taking regular exercise is, as with so many diseases and conditions, the key to preventing high blood pressure. I’m not exactly little miss healthy – my sweet tooth gets me every time – but I do enjoy keeping active and like to feel fit. I definitely have some improvements to make on my fruit and veg intake, because I really don’t want to be in a situation years from now and look back in regret at changes I could have made but didn’t. Generally people are living much longer these days, but what will the quality of that longer life be?
As with any medical concerns, please consult a doctor if there is anything you are worried about.
NHS choices website
Blood pressure UK website
Daily Mail article on clinical trials
Safa Ouhib is a History graduate with an interest in health and fitness among other things. She lives in Scotland with two young children.