Dr. Mary Ann Bauman from the American Heart Association briefs us on new guidelines and simple tips to keep your blood pressure in check.
- Posted on Jun 26, 2019
One of the biggest health risks facing Americans right now—and one that’s easy to forget—is uncontrolled high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
The organization says that staying on top of blood pressure readings year-round can prevent illnesses like heart disease and stroke. We spoke with Dr. Mary Ann Bauman, who serves on the organization’s national board, to uncover some simple ways people can lower their blood pressure and live healthier lives.
Here's what we learned.
The AHA issued new guidelines in 2017, reclassifying hypertension (high blood pressure) as any reading over 130/80, which used to be considered the pre-hypertension phase. That’s a drastic change from the previous classification of 140/90, Dr. Bauman said, adding that she believes most people aren’t aware of the new numbers.
“We know that when your blood pressure is above 130 you have twice the risk of heart disease and stroke,” Dr. Bauman said to Guideposts.org. “The reason we got rid of pre-hypertension is because that kind of gave people a false sense of security ‘Oh I really don't have a problem.’ So we want people to recognize that they do.”
According to Dr. Bauman, these new guidelines mean that as many as half of all Americans have high blood pressure.
Awareness and education are the best methods of defense though, which is why it’s so important for patients to understand their readings, and how to get the most accurate diagnosis.
“We do often pay attention to the systolic blood pressure, the upper number,” Dr. Bauman explains. “That occurs when the heart pushes the blood through, that's the pressure to get blood through the vessels.”
A good way of monitoring your blood pressure and thus, keeping it in check, is to do your own regular readings, away from the doctor’s office.
“People in the doctors’ offices are often not measuring blood pressure properly,” Dr. Bauman explains. “A person needs to be sitting for five minutes without talking, just relaxing, with their legs uncrossed. The pressure cuff is put on the arm—not a wrist one, [those are] not accurate—and the arm is sitting on a table so that you’re at the heart level.” Dr. Bauman said practitioners should always ask that patients consume no caffeine or cigarettes for 30 minutes before checking their blood pressure. Then do a couple of different readings to make sure the result is accurate.
Dr. Bauman admits that because this perfect scenario for measuring blood pressure doesn’t often happen during routine doctor’s visits—if a patient knows they have elevated blood pressure, or just want to keep theirs check—the best method is at home monitoring.
We all love flavorful food, but salt—a common seasoning lurking in your kitchen cabinet—is a big risk factor for high blood pressure. It causes the body to retain water, which increases pressure and puts a strain on your kidneys.
The ideal salt intake is around 1,500 milligrams a day, but according to Dr. Bauman, the average American is consuming much more than that.
“We Americans usually have 4,000 milligrams a day,” she explains. “One of the things we try to get people to do is to reduce their salt to 2,300 milligrams a day.”
To do that, Dr. Bauman suggests reading the labels on food before buying and cutting back on processed meals.
We all know that exercise is a big factor in leading a longer, healthier life. But surprisingly, when it comes to blood pressure, you don’t need to do anything too strenuous to keep your numbers down.
“Just 30 minutes a day, most days of the week, just going out and walking, would bring your blood pressure down,” Dr. Bauman says. “If you are overweight, losing weight will help as well. If you lose 10-lbs., your blood pressure starts to respond. So, it doesn't take a lot of weight loss for your blood pressure to change.”
How many of us reach for the medicine cabinet when a headache pops up or allergies start to flair? Over-the-counter drug use is common in most Americans, but Dr. Bauman warns that patients at risk for high blood pressure, or those who already have hypertension, need to be more cautious of the pills they consume.
“Over-the-counter medications can raise your blood pressure,” she explains. “[During] allergy season, people want to take Sudafed, or something that may have a decongestant in it. That can raise your blood pressure. Especially if you already know you have high blood pressure, you need to be very cautious with those medications.”
Dr. Bauman suggests patients check their blood pressure, if taking any over-the-counter medication, and with their doctor.
Often, those diagnosed with hypertension and prescribed medication, fail to take their pill regularly.
“We've had good blood pressure medications for over 50 years, but we find that only 54 percent of people have controlled blood pressure,” Dr. Bauman said. “That means that people are not always taking their medications [as] they should.”
“Take your medication. If the medication has a side effect that you don't like, talk with your doctor because there are many choices available and sometimes it takes a little bit of time to find the right medication.”
It’s tempting to try an eating regimen that seems to have benefits for people, like the Keto or Paleo diet. Unfortunately, the sudden changes that come with those diets can be harmful when it comes to blood pressure.
“I'm not a fan of the fad diets that go around in part because you can't stay on those forever and so often the weight loss from those types of diets is not permanent,” Dr. Bauman said. “Whereas we know if you do increase your fruits and vegetables, lower your saturated fat food like your red meats etc., you will help your blood pressure as well.”
Dr. Bauman said if you want to lose weight or simply eat healthier, stick to the tried-and-true methods: more fruits and veggies, fewer fats and carbs.
Being aware of your body, what brings you stress, changes in how you’re feeling, etc. are the best ways to monitor something as asymptomatic as blood pressure. Dr. Bauman suggests decreasing stress where you can, exercising and meditating regularly, and listening to your body.
And don’t let your history fool you into a false sense of security.
“Hypertension does increase with age, so you can't assume at 45-years-old that you're just fine, nor can you assume at 65-years-old that, because you never had high blood pressure, you won't have it now.”