Checking your blood pressure is a routine procedure for most medical visits, and for good reason, as heart disease remains the top cause of death for Americans. It may have been awhile since you’ve had your blood pressure checked, especially if you’ve been putting off doctor’s visits during the pandemic. Perhaps understanding the science behind why having a healthy blood pressure is important may be a helpful reminder to get yours checked so you can stay on top of your health.
Here are answers to five of the most commonly asked blood pressure questions. We hope they help you take control of your heart (and overall) health and well-being.
1. What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of the arteries. As blood flows away from the heart and through the arteries, the blood presses up against the artery walls. Your blood pressure measures how much pressure the blood is putting on the arteries.
Blood pressure naturally rises and falls throughout the day, especially during activities where we need more oxygenated blood to our muscles such as during exercise. But when blood pressure stays elevated over time, it’s called high blood pressure and often results in a diagnosis of hypertension.
2. What does my blood pressure reading mean? Do I have a healthy blood pressure?
According to the American Heart Association, your blood pressure is recorded using two numbers:
- Systolic blood pressure (the first number) indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when the heart beats.
- Diastolic blood pressure (the second number) indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.
3. Why is high blood pressure dangerous?
Consistently high blood pressure can be dangerous because it makes your heart work harder than it needs to.
This contributes to atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Each year, 630,000 Americans die from heart disease, which is one in every four deaths.
High blood pressure also can result in other conditions such as congestive heart failure, kidney disease, and blindness.
4. How do you know if you're at risk?
Your family’s medical history, your lifestyle, and your environment can increase (or decrease) your risk of developing high blood pressure.
In addition, your risk for high blood pressure can increase based on your age and your race or ethnicity. According to the CDC, your blood pressure tends to rise as you get older. It is estimated that nine out of ten Americans will develop high blood pressure during their lifetime. Some women may also experience high blood pressure during pregnancy, which may lead to preeclampsia.
Research has concluded that your genes can also play a role in your risk level. GenoPalate analyzes genes like the ACE gene. Certain variants in this gene are linked to decreased blood pressure on a low-fat diet. Multiple genes can affect blood pressure, but risks can be managed through lifestyle changes.
5. Can you lower your risk or reverse a diagnosis?
The link between high blood pressure and your diet is one of the most well-researched areas of nutritional science. While some foods are linked to increased blood pressure, others are linked to lowered blood pressure. Changes in weight and physical activity can also affect blood pressure.
Limiting sodium (salt) in particular has been shown to decrease risk of hypertension. The majority of added salt in the American diet comes from processed foods like deli meats, cheeses, and packaged or fast food. Limiting these foods can significantly improve blood pressure. Additionally, it can be helpful to reduce added salt that is used when cooking recipes or at the table. Keep in mind that all forms of salt - including sea salt, Kosher salt, and Himalayan salt - all contain sodium in them.
Specific nutrients—like potassium, magnesium, and calcium—can also help to decrease high blood pressure. These nutrients are especially rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and dairy products.
While we don’t recommend one-size-fits-all diets, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is designed to help support a healthy blood pressure. It focuses on a way of eating that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean sources of protein.
All diets, including the DASH diet, should be considered in light of your genetic variants. Some genetic variants, for instance, find that switching to a low-sodium diet helps them reach a healthy blood pressure level.
If you don’t have your personalized nutrition recommendations and food list yet, you can order yours here.
And if you’ve been putting off your physical, give your doctor a call and get an updated blood pressure reading at your earliest convenience.