Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


What's The Big Deal About Hypertension?

Under Pressure

It’s not the sort of thing you would feel.

It’s certainly not something you can see.

“I feel fine,” is the kind of thing you would say. And all the while, it would be silently damaging your heart. Your eyes. Your kidneys.

Sound scary?

It doesn’t have to be.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is ridiculously common (an estimated 1 in 5 Canadians have it). My dad has it. My mom seems to be developing it. One of my best girlfriends is teetering on the borderline. And not a day goes by that I don’t see several patients with hypertension.

Thing is, checking blood pressure is easy. And—even better—it’s highly treatable. So—why would anyone develop the sort of complications high blood pressure can cook up?

Good question.

The kicker is this: we can only treat hypertension—and stop the damage—if we know it’s there. And, like I said, you don’t necessarily get symptoms when your blood pressure is too high. As a result, many of us have no idea we have a problem. And that, my friends, is why it’s called the silent killer.

But maybe I need to back up a little. What is blood pressure, exactly?

Blood pressure is the force exerted by your blood on the walls of your arteries. A blood pressure measurement consists of two numbers. The “top” number (or systolic blood pressure, if you want to get fancy about it) is the maximum force your vessels receive, when your heart contracts and pushes blood forward through your body. The “bottom” number (or diastolic blood pressure) is the lowest pressure on your vessels, when your heart relaxes between beats.

You may get a slightly different reading at different times of day, or even minute to minute. That’s normal. What we’re interested in? The overall trend, what your blood pressure is like on average. Ideally, you want your blood pressure below 135/85. If you’re consistently over 140/90, we would call that high blood pressure.

So why is hypertension a bad thing? Basically, with chronically high pressure, your blood vessels and vulnerable organs are being repeatedly slammed, bashed, and pushed around...and generally getting beat up just a little more with every heart beat. Your heart itself is also forced to work harder—it’s having to strain against a higher resistance.

And that’s not okay.

As a result, hypertension is a major risk factor for heart attacks. It also happens to be the number one risk factor for strokes.

It’s a piece of cake to get checked. Your doctor can do it in less time than it takes to....well, eat a piece of cake. (Not that I eat cake. Okay...not while checking people's blood pressure, anyway.) Or, you can stick your arm in a public machine at your nearest pharmacy or recreation centre and get a ballpark idea of your measurement.

And if yours is high? No panicking. It’s treatable. Many lifestyle changes have the power to reduce blood pressure. And if yours is resistant to that—usually because you did not, alas, win the genetic lottery on this one—there’s always medication.

Don’t be fooled—just because you feel “fine”. Or just because you’re young, just because you’re female, just because you eat your veggies...none of these things make you immune. More than two years since your blood pressure was last checked? That’s too long. Do yourself a favour. Make a commitment to taking care of you. Getting your blood pressure checked is an excellent way to start.