We’ve all been there – sitting in the doctor’s office lobby waiting to be called back for your appointment. Before you see your provider, you go through a series of small tests to check your vital signs: height, weight, temperature, and most importantly, blood pressure. Although it may seem like just another mundane aspect of your appointment, checking your blood pressure is actually one of the most important steps in detecting hypertension – especially with the new guidelines that redefine the starting point of high blood pressure.
According to the new American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines, a normal blood pressure reading is now defined as less than 120/80. Traditionally, the range for hypertension has been defined as greater than 140/90. However, under the new guidelines dictated by the AHA, hypertension is now defined as greater than 130/80.
What does this mean for the US population? Nearly half of US adults are now considered hypertensive. Hypertension is the second leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease aside from smoking. Left untreated, hypertension increases the likelihood for heart disease and stroke.
“Hypertension is much more prevalent than we initially thought,” says Dr. Yazan Khatib, Interventional Cardiologist and President of First Coast Cardiovascular Institute (FCCI). “These new guidelines come from one of the most prestigious organizations in the world and should not be taken lightly,” he adds.
This is the first time the guidelines have been changed since 2003. Dr. Khatib believes these guidelines should serve as a reminder to both providers and patients to take control of hypertension as early as possible. “As healthcare providers, we need to make sure our patients are fully educated on how to prevent hypertension before they walk out of the office,” Dr. Khatib says, “As patients, we need to make the lifestyle changes necessary to prevent hypertension from getting to a state where it needs daily medications, let alone preventing it from causing a major heart attack or stroke.”
There are pharmacological treatments to treat hypertension. However, in its early stages and before taking medication, Dr. Khatib recommends making lifestyle changes first. The AHA makes the following recommendations to prevent hypertension:
- Know your numbers. Check your blood pressure regularly. If you have high blood pressure already, make sure you are checking your blood pressure twice a day.
- Limit your sodium intake to about 2,300 milligrams per day. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of one teaspoon of salt. If you have high blood pressure, aim for no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium every day. A few ways to limit your sodium intake include:
- Trade your salt shaker for herbal spices instead.
- Look for the low-sodium version of the foods you select. This includes canned goods, condiments, nuts, and soups.
- When dining out, ask that your dish be prepared without salt. Then add some flavor using pepper.
- Quit smoking. Smoking can temporarily increase your blood pressure. It also increases plaque buildup inside the arteries, which can result in a heart attack or stroke. Whether you decide to quit cold turkey or slowly wean off, your heart health will thank you.
- Reduce stress. Aside from the discomfort of being stressed, your body reacts negatively to stress by releasing hormones that temporarily increase blood pressure. Limit the incidents of this by knowing and reducing the stress triggers in your life. Our FCCI providers suggest practicing self-awareness, and sizing down your challenges and goals within your means. We also recommend an exercise routine to cope with daily stress.
- Limit alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption can raise your blood pressure. Be sure to limit your alcohol intake to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
The science that led to the adoption of the new hypertension guidelines is substantial, so we must take them seriously. By the same token, we caution that not every elevated blood pressure reading equates to hypertension, as situational stresses can affect adversely an occasional blood pressure reading. Consistent high readings should prompt seeking medical attention.