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Heart Month tips: Five lifestyle choices to help control hypertension

Blood pressure test

Hypertension, which refers to elevated or high blood pressure, affects 75 million American adults — one in every three American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also warns that anyone, even children, can develop high blood pressure.

Unfortunately, there aren't many symptoms that indicate you have high blood pressure. That's why it's often referred to as a "silent killer." If it's not managed with healthy lifestyle behaviors and/or medications, hypertension can lead to some very serious health complications, such as damage to one's eyes, brains, kidneys, an occurrence of stroke and/or heart attack and even death.

So during American Heart Month in February, it is a good time to commit to healthy behaviors to control your blood pressure and reduce your health risks.

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the measurement of the force of blood against the walls of your arteries as blood circulates in your body. There are actually two measurements involved: The systolic pressure — the top number — gauges the force of the arteries when the heart contracts to push the blood into the artery system; while the diastolic pressure — the bottom number — refers to the pressure during the short time of relaxation between heart beats.

As a general practice, blood pressure is measured at every visit with your physician. It's especially important to keep tabs on your blood pressure numbers if you have risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, a family history of hypertension, or elevated cholesterol levels (a total higher than 200 or a LDL, or bad cholesterol, level greater than 100, depending on your overall health).

Prevention is key

Healthy lifestyle behaviors can help keep your blood pressure in check and help reduce your risk for serious health conditions. Here are five highly recommended behaviors:

  • Eat a healthy diet. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet was created by the National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. It focuses on reducing the amount of sodium, sugary and fatty foods and increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in one's diet. More and more studies show that the Mediterranean diet – which features lean sources of protein such as fish and poultry, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and healthier olive oil – can also reduce the incidence of cardiovascular events significantly.
  • Control your weight. Many doctors refer to one's BMI, or body mass index, to help determine if one is overweight or obese. Visit cdc.gov/healthyweight for a BMI calculator.
  • Be physically active. Aim for getting 30 to 40 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, bicycling) four to five times a week; or 30 to 40 minutes of intense aerobic exercise three times a week. Youth should get an hour of exercise every day.
  • Stop smoking. The nicotine in cigarettes can cause an increase of your blood pressure. Smoking and even exposure to secondhand smoke increases your risk for the buildup of plaque inside arteries, according to the American Heart Association.
  • Know your numbers. Get annual readings of your blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol counts (total cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglycerides) to see if you are within the recommended guidelines for your age and physical health.
About Rafael Cabrera MD