CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Do you know your blood pressure? Unless you’re at risk for high blood pressure then you probably don’t know the answer to that.
But since the beginning of a new year always makes our health top of mind, now is a good time to check. Especially in light of updated guidelines from the American Heart Association that have lowered the threshold for being diagnosed with hypertension.
While the guidelines were updated last year, doctors say many don’t know that which is why it’s being recommended you get yours checked the next time you’re at the doctor. The previous guideline set 140/90 as the threshold for hypertension. But experts lowered it to 130/80 in order to help combat the increase in the health problems that come along with high blood pressure like strokes, heart attacks and kidney disease. Dr. Genevieve Brauning with Novant Health says doctors are now being much more aggressive in treating high blood pressure, even when it's in the early stages, say mid-130s and 140s where you don't have any symptoms. That’s when she starts talking to her patients about making lifestyle changes.
“We're gonna start getting very aggressive with your general lifestyle things,” she said. “So we're going to recommend a low-sodium or DASH diet. Regular exercise; weight loss to see if we can use lifestyle without medication to get those numbers down under the 130/80. But if they're getting higher or people have failed lifestyle management, then we're going to start medication.”
And, she says there is a critical reason why doctors are no longer waiting until your blood pressure is much higher to intervene. “But even though you may not have what people think of as symptoms from high blood pressure, headaches, feeling pressure in their chest - the elevated blood pressure readings are causing damage to your blood vessel,” Brauning explained. “In particular, blood vessels around your heart, around your kidneys and around your brain. So even if you don't have symptoms, there's long term damage from walking around without controlling your symptoms.”
That’s because the blood vessels around your brain, heart and kidneys - are tiny, just the width of a thread. So any added strain -- and that what blood pressure measures is how well your vessels constrict under pressure and how much they subsequently relax -- causes damage. And a long-term build of damage, especially if it starts in your 30s and 40s can put your more at risk for heart attack, stroke and kidney disease as you get older.
“The three main areas that I worry about with uncontrolled blood pressure are your brain because high pressure in the blood vessels of your brain will lead to stroke,” she said. “Your heart. High blood pressure in those blood vessels that feed the muscles of your heart can lead to heart attack. And your kidneys. So those three vital areas are critical to your health. You can't survive without any of them.
One of the risk factors of hypertension is family history -- but Dr. Brauning says that doesn't mean someone can't have a different outcome than their family members. “You’re not doomed,” she insisted. “It may be possible that you have an increased risk of developing hypertension but it doesn't mean you have to have uncontrolled hypertension. I tell people you might have to work a little harder than your next door neighbor at your lifestyle things to avoid these diseases but it doesn't mean you can't avoid them.”
Doctors are also screening everyone regardless of risk factors (like family history). They say it’s that important to living a long and healthy life.
Knowing your blood pressure and if you’re at risk is especially important for African Americans who have hypertension at a much higher rate. There are a number of reasons including socioeconomic status because communities of color often have less access to fresh produce and low salt foods as opposed to processed foods packed with sodium (which is often used as a preservative). Obesity is another factor as it’s more prevalent in the Black community. And, higher stress levels: African-Americans suffer more stress whether it be financial, social or otherwise. Doctors say chronic stress can elevate your blood pressure, no matter the origin.
Research shows African-Americans are often not treated as aggressively or as early on. Dr. Brauning says doctors have a responsibility to treat every patient the same. “Because we know that African Americans have more hypertension, I think that some [doctors] may feel they're stuck with high blood pressure,” she said. “So, we know you have high blood pressure - well yeah, you're gonna have high blood pressure and not be as aggressive with that number.”
Those with high blood pressure often have an at-home blood pressure cuff to monitor their readings. But, there are common misconceptions when it comes to using it correctly. In fact, I got my blood pressure taken after I interview Dr. Brauning so she could demonstrate how to take your blood pressure properly (which you see it in the video above). “You definitely want to be sitting down both feet on the ground,” she said. “It’s good to empty your bladder before because that can actually increase your blood pressure. You want to avoid having nicotine or caffeine or eating within about 30 minutes of checking it. And then you want to rest your arm on something that's about heart level instead of letting your arm hang down off the side of a chair. Use the kitchen table for the most accurate readings.
Dr. Brauning also said you should take readings throughout the day, make sure you take it before your exercise and make sure your doctor has tested your home-cuff to make sure you’re getting accurate and reliable readings.