Your blood pressure isn’t just a reading at your doctor’s office. It can predict your risk for heart attack, heart failure, or stroke. Simply put, the higher your blood pressure, the higher your risk for these and other deadly diseases.
Suppose you learn you have something known as prehypertension? Your blood pressure isn’t high enough to be called hypertension (high blood pressure), but it falls in the “high-normal” range. What does this mean for you?
Plenty. It means you’re most likely headed down the road toward high blood pressure, but you still have time to apply the brakes—and perhaps even make a U-turn—by adopting a healthier lifestyle.
That is, if you stay on course.
“The danger from having prehypertension turns out to be greater than we previously thought,” says Martin S. Lipsky, M.D., lead author of the American Medical Association's Guide to Preventing and Treating Heart Disease.
According to the American Heart Association, the progression to high blood pressure occurs within four years of being diagnosed with prehypertension. That's true for nearly one in three adults ages 35 to 64 and one in two ages 65 and older. Even at these lower levels of blood pressure, doctors start to see damage to the blood vessels.
Blood pressure is the force of blood against your artery walls. When it stays high over time—at a level of 140/90 mmHg or higher—it’s known as high blood pressure. If your blood pressure reading is consistently between 120/80 and 139/89 mmHg, you’re in the prehypertension range.
“The heart is a pump, and blood vessels are like pipes,” Dr. Lipsky says. “When there’s high pressure, there’s more wear and tear on the pipes and the pump. This can translate into problems with hardening of the arteries, or with damage to the kidneys or heart.”
The best first step to taking control is to have your blood pressure checked routinely. One reason your blood pressure is checked every time you visit the doctor is because there’s no other way to know when your pressure is high—you can’t feel high blood pressure at work.
Or, you can check your own pressure at home. Local pharmacies sell electronic digital monitors that can be relatively simple to use.
For higher accuracy, Dr. Lipsky recommends purchasing a blood pressure cuff and simple stethoscope—the kind used in your doctor’s office. Whichever type of monitor you choose, take it with you to your doctor’s office to be trained in its use and to have it checked for accuracy.
When blood pressure is elevated, it’s critical to control it by making certain lifestyle changes.
“These are the things all adults should probably do, but they’re even more important for people with prehypertension and high blood pressure,” Dr. Lipsky says.
In fact, learning you have prehypertension may be just the motivation you need to finally do what’s best for your health. Here's what to do:
1. Maintain a healthy body weight. It’s hard to lose weight, but even modest amounts of weight loss can benefit your health. If you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 pounds can lower your blood pressure.
2. Eat healthy foods. Add fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains and cut back on saturated fat.
3. Reduce salt intake. Avoid foods that taste salty, and processed and canned foods. Don’t add salt to food at the table.
4. Increase physical activity. Strive for at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Some physical activity is better than none. If you can’t get in 30 minutes’ worth, do what you can. Stay active through the day: Park at the far end of the parking lot; take the stairs instead of the elevator.
5. Limit alcohol. “We know that drinking modest amounts of alcohol may actually help your heart,” Dr. Lipsky says. “Usually, if people choose to drink, we recommend moderation—one drink a day for women, no more than two a day for men.” (A drink equals one 12-ounce beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.)
6. If you smoke, quit. Smoking can raise your blood pressure, and smoking and high blood pressure together can cause extra harm to your heart and blood vessels.
“I know some of these things are hard to do. It’s enjoyable to eat and drink, and sometimes it’s hard to exercise,” Dr. Lipsky says. “I recommend moderation—plan to make changes you can live with. Following a healthy diet is important. Try to do it most days of the year, and on those special occasions—such as weddings or Thanksgiving—lighten up a bit so you can stay in it for the long haul.”