Lowering blood pressure 

General information

As blood travels around the body it exerts pressure against the artery walls. A blood pressure reading is a measurement of this force. There are two components to a blood pressure reading. The higher number is the 'systolic' reading and is the pressure in the arteries as the heart contracts to force the blood around the body. The lower number is the 'diastolic' reading and is the pressure in the arteries when the heart is relaxed after a beat. 

Blood pressure increases with age, so what could be a normal blood pressure reading for someone in their 60's may be considered abnormally high for someone in their 20's. 

An ideal blood pressure for most people is less that 130/80. In general, hypertension is defined as having blood pressure of 140/90 or higher. 

Signs and symptoms

There are usually no signs and symptoms of hypertension until the condition has been present for a long time. Over time, the continuous high pressure of blood puts extra strain on the blood vessels and internal organs. In general, the longer high blood pressure is present and the higher it is, the more likely it is that damage will occur. People with hypertension are at a greater risk of developing medical conditions such as: 
  • stroke 
  • enlarged heart
  • kidney failure
  • aneurysm
  • damage to the retina of the eye 

Causes

In approximately 95% of cases there is no specific cause of hypertension. In the other 5% of causes, hypertension is due to specific factors such as kidney disease or various gland disorders and is called 'secondary' hypertension. It is difficult to predict who will develop hypertension but there are a number of known risk factors for the condition. 

Known risk factors include: 
  • being overweight
  • increasing age
  • inactive lifestyle
  • excessive alcohol intake 
  • family history of hypertension
  • a diet high in salt
  • smoking
  • excessive caffeine intake
  • use of oral contraceptive medications

Treatment

Treatment of hypertension will focus on two main areas - lifestyle changes and medications. Your doctor may initially recommend lifestyle changes in an attempt to lower the blood pressure. However, if lifestyle changes alone do not adequately lower the blood pressure within a 3-6 month period, then a combination of lifestyle changes and medications may be recommended. 

Lifestyle changes include: 
  • maintaining a healthy bodyweight
  • exercising regularly
  • stopping smoking 
  • reducing salt, alcohol, caffeine and fat intake
  • reducing stress levels 

Prevention

It is generally recommended that men over 45 years of age and women over 55 years of age should have their blood pressure checked regularly along with the following groups of people:
  • those who have had a stroke, heart attack, high blood cholesterol or diabetes
  • those who have a history of high blood pressure 
  • those who are overweight
  • pregnant women
  • women taking oral contraceptive medications
  • those who have a family history of heart disease

Further support

The Heart Foundation of New Zealand provides resources such as pamphlets and cookbooks and offers support and information to people with conditions such as hypertension and heart disease. 

Find out more here.


References: 

Anderson, K.N (et al), 2006. Mosby's medical, nursing and allied health dictionary (6th ed)

MedicineNet (2012). High blood pressure. WebMD 

The Heart Foundation of New Zealand (2010). High blood pressure 

Warketin, D.L & Cooper, P.G. (2002). High blood pressure clinical reference systems. Annual 2002. McKesson Health Solutions LLC.