A Most Important Health Screening

May 16, 2017

We live in an age of fancy medical tests like CAT scans and MRIs. These tools can be invaluable in assessing a health problem. However, some simple tests that have been around for a long time are also invaluable in assessing health. One such test is measuring blood pressure which has long been a part of routine health screenings. As simple as it seems, it offers an “instant” picture of heart functioning. While it may not be able to diagnose the underlying cause, it is a finding that must be addressed if it is high.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure (known as hypertension) is a leading cause of stroke and heart attacks. Yet a simple intervention, medication, can minimize its potential devastating effects.

Blood pressure is always measured in two numbers. The top number, systolic pressure, is the measure of the force of blood against the artery walls when the heart is contracting (beating) and pushing blood out to the body. The bottom number, diastolic pressure, is the measure of the pressure on the artery walls when the heart is relaxing and filling with blood. Understanding the mechanics of the measurement, while interesting, is not really important to your health. What is important is that if your blood pressure is high (called hypertension,) your heart is working harder than it needs to work. This can lead to heart attack, kidney disease or a stroke. It is critical to take action to get it to a safe level.  

There is only one way to know what your blood pressure measurement is: get it checked!  Hypertension is not diagnosed by a single elevated level (unless at extremely high and requires immediate intervention.)  The diagnosis is made after several readings under different conditions. Some people swear that their blood pressure is only high when they go to the doctor (known as “white coat syndrome”.) This may be true for some people, but it would be important to have it checked by other health professionals outside the doctor’s office to be sure this is the case. If your blood pressure is truly high, you are adding an unnecessary burden to your heart.

 Your blood pressure can be normal for years when suddenly and unexpectedly you are faced with someone telling you that your blood pressure is elevated. You may have a hard time believing this because you feel just fine. You think you would feel unwell if your blood pressure was high.  Besides, you are a calm person. (Isn’t it just high-strung nervous people who get high blood pressure?)

FACT: Anyone can develop high blood pressure.

FACT: There are generally no symptoms with high blood pressure.  

FACT: Blood pressure can change and become elevated almost overnight. 

FACT: For most high blood pressure, the cause is unknown

FACT: High blood pressure is usually not curable, but it can be controlled.

FACT: If blood pressure medication is prescribed by your doctor, you usually take

 it for life, although it may be adjusted.

MOST IMPORTANT FACT: Controlling high blood pressure can prevent strokes and heart attacks.

            For mild blood pressure elevations, lifestyle changes are often prescribed as a first step.  They include increasing exercise, losing weight, not smoking, avoiding salt and fat, and decreasing alcohol.  If these actions fail to bring blood pressure under control, a doctor may prescribe a medicine.  It is very important to take the medicine as directed.  You should never stop taking high blood pressure medicines unless you are working with your doctor during this process. 

            Hypertension is a strong risk for heart and kidney disease and stroke. But it is easy to control. Embrace the recommendations made by your health care provider. Do what you need to do to bring it down!  For a free information packet on high blood pressure and high blood pressure medications, Quinnipiack Valley Health District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call QVHD, 203 248-4528. Visit the QVHD website, www.qvhd.org, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.