Every now and then, I will have a patient who is shocked to learn they have hypertension, a condition more commonly known as high blood pressure.
The reason for their surprise is quite understandable. That's because patients who suffer from this condition often do not experience any symptoms. As a result, those who have it will often feel perfectly healthy.
And therein lies the problem. Most people don't realize just how sneaky hypertension can be -- or how much risk it can pose to their health. That's why it is important to learn about the dangers posed by high blood pressure -- and what can be done to keep this condition under control.
Hypertension is one of the leading causes of premature death in Canada, particularly among older adults
Let's start with the basics. Your heart pumps blood. Blood pressure is the force of blood against your blood vessels as it circulates. This force is necessary to make the blood flow, delivering nutrients and oxygen throughout your body.
Hypertension means there is too much pressure in your blood vessels, which can damage them. Think of a garden hose with the nozzle shut off and the tap opened fully. Eventually, the hose will be damaged. Similarly, the blood vessels in your body get damaged when the pressure is too high for prolonged periods of time.
Hypertension Canada, a group that includes a number of experts in the field, estimates as many as six million Canadians live with high blood pressure. Yet the organization says as many as 20 per cent of those who have high blood pressure don't even know it.
That lack of knowledge can be a problem because hypertension is one of the leading causes of premature death in Canada, particularly among older adults. Research shows having high blood pressure will put you at increased risk for a number of health issues, including stroke, heart attack and kidney disease. It is also related to dementia and sexual problems. It is for these reasons -- the absence of symptoms, the links to serious illness -- hypertension is often referred to as the "silent killer."
Fortunately, there are a number of steps one can take prevent high blood pressure or keep it under control. The first thing to do, of course, is to make sure you get your blood pressure checked regularly. Keeping regular tabs on your blood pressure will alert you to potential problems and give you a chance to keep it under control. Here are some other tips:
1. Be physically active for 30 to 60 minutes, five to seven days a week. Try walking, biking, swimming, cross-country skiing or any other physical activity you enjoy. Even a little bit of physical activity is better than none.
2. Choose the following more often: vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products, whole grains and lean meat, fish and poultry. Limit fast foods, canned foods or foods that are bought prepared or those that are high in salt and sugar, saturated or trans-fats, such as shortening, palm or coconut oil and lard.
3. Eat less salt. Try not to add salt to your cooking and remove the salt shaker from the table. Hypertension Canada recommends consuming no more than 1,500 mg of salt per day.
4. Limit alcohol. If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to one or two standard drinks a day, to a weekly maximum of nine for women and 14 for men.
5. Manage your weight. If you are overweight, losing five kilograms (10 pounds) will lower your blood pressure.
6. Do not smoke. Smoking increases the risk of developing heart problems and other diseases.
7. Check your blood pressure at home. You can learn how to do this by visiting www.hypertension.ca. The website contains information about which home blood pressure machines have been found to be accurate. It's also an excellent resource for finding more information about hypertension.
Dr. Harold Nyhof is Medical Director of Primary Care Clinics for the Northern Health Authority.