By Andrew Wayne and Anirudha Rathnam
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the most common medical conditions in the United States; perhaps so common that people assume it’s harmless. During our clinical days with Street Medicine Detroit, we come across cases of hypertension frequently. There are many drugs on the market that do a great job of treating high blood pressure, but that doesn’t mean it’s a condition you take lightly. Seemingly invisible at first, this is a chronic condition. It can lead to serious complications five, ten, or even twenty years down the road, including heart attacks, kidney disease, problems with vision, or even neurological concerns like strokes and dementia.
Hypertension is defined as having a blood pressure of at least 140/90 mm Hg, whereas a normal blood pressure is considered to be 120/80 mm Hg. However this is simply a line drawn in the sand for diagnostic purposes. If you have a blood pressure that is approaching “high” but is not quite there, don’t wait to take precautions. On the other hand, if you already have hypertension, it’s not too late for you to take control of your health.
Here are some tips for identifying major risks for hypertension and ways to help control your blood pressure: the older you are, the more likely you are to develop hypertension; blood vessels lose flexibility with age. Drinking too much alcohol and smoking, as well as stress and obesity, can also lead to hypertension. Like height and hair color, hypertension may also run in your family.
While hypertension is a national medical problem, it is especially a concern among certain groups, including African Americans. One reason may be that certain genes associated with hypertension are more common among this population. However, it’s important to remember that risk factors are much more complicated than simply genetics. For example, there is a strong connection between stress and racism. Pregnant African American women have been shown to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to their white counterparts, which has been linked to a higher birth rate of premature infants. Chronic stress from pressure felt from racism or a pressured work environment can contribute to hypertension. People with lower socioeconomic status are also at risk due to having fewer dietary choices and less access to healthcare.
No matter what your risk factors are, it’s important to be aware of them and keep them in check to the best of your ability. Salt is one thing you can control. The recommended daily intake is 2300 milligrams or less. Even if you don’t add salt to your meals, many foods already include them. Use nutrition labels to control your salt intake. Eating foods with more magnesium, calcium, and potassium also protects you from hypertension. Such foods include beans, leafy greens, squash, yogurt, fish, bananas, and milk. Aerobic exercise not only reduces the risk of obesity, but benefits your heart and blood vessels. The more frequently you exercise, the better: running four times a week for 30 minute sessions is more beneficial than two 1-hour sessions per week. Most importantly, please seek medical care if you suspect signs of hypertension. This condition is called a “silent killer” because it can go undetected for years. The earlier it’s detected, the more prepared you will be.