Until a few years ago, if your blood pressure was 120/80 mm Hg, doctors considered you healthy. Today, that same reading would get you a diagnosis of prehypertension, a condition we now know puts you at a higher risk for stroke, heart attack, dementia, blindness and early death. (One study found prehypertension triples heart attack risk!) Fortunately, you can control your blood pressure—and that’s easiest to do when you start controlling it early, before it becomes high.
If your doctor has diagnosed you with prehypertension, your blood pressure is between 120–139/80–89 mm Hg. Unless you take steps to lower your blood pressure, you are likely to develop hypertension, a blood pressure reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher, which increases your risk for damage to your heart, brain, eyes, arteries and kidneys.
African-Americans are particularly at risk for blood pressure problems, as are adults over 55; overweight individuals; people with a family history of high blood pressure; and people who have kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, or a narrowing of the aorta, a heart problem.
You’re also more likely to develop high blood pressure if you smoke, are inactive, eat poorly or are constantly stressed. Medications, including some antidepressants, cold medicines and hormones, can also trigger your blood pressure to rise.
You can lower your blood pressure—or if it’s already normal, help keep it there—by managing the risk factors you can control. To do this:
- lose excess weight
- exercise regularly
- drink in moderation only
- limit caffeine to about 200 milligrams (mg) a day (the amount in two cups of coffee)
- don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke
- eat a balanced diet rich in grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, with less meat, saturated fat and cholesterol and fewer sweets
- consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day by using less salt (one teaspoon equals 2,300 mg of sodium) and fewer processed foods, generally high in sodium
- control your stress
- socialize with, and seek support from, family or friends
Most people with prehypertension don’t need medication unless they have diabetes or kidney disease. But since the risk of death from heart disease or stroke can increase when blood pressure rises past 115/75 mm Hg, see your doctor regularly. Keeping tabs on your blood pressure is an important part of guarding your health.