High blood pressure is not being controlled in three out of five UK cases, a new study suggests – and it’s high time we did something about it.
The issue, also known as hypertension, is the leading preventable risk factor for death from cardiovascular disease, affecting over 1.3 billion people around the globe and is responsible for around half of all strokes and heart attacks.
Getting on top of it should be a priority for us all. When a person’s blood pressure becomes too high, it can put pressure on the blood vessels, heart and organs such as the brain, kidneys and eyes.
In the long run, it can increase the risk of a number of serious and potentially life-threatening health conditions, such as heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and kidney disease.
Despite the ready availability of inexpensive drug treatments to treat hypertension, many people remain “undiagnosed or inadequately treated”, researchers said. Around a third of adults in the UK have high blood pressure, according to the NHS, but many will not realise it.
Research published in the online journal Open Heart looked at how well blood pressure is controlled among 40- to 69-year-olds diagnosed with hypertension and taking medication to treat it in the UK.
Drawing on baseline survey data from the UK Biobank – a large population-based study of half a million 40-69 year-olds living in England, Scotland and Wales between 2006 and 2010 – they found 56% had high blood pressure, meaning their reading was over 140/90 mm Hg.
For context, ideal blood pressure is usually seen to be between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg.
Nearly half of those with high blood pressure (47%) were unaware of their condition and just two out of five middle-aged people undergoing treatment for hypertension had control of it.
If you are concerned about your blood pressure – or curious to know what your reading is – you can buy at-home blood pressure monitors from most pharmacies and larger supermarkets.
Alternatively, speak to your GP, nurse or local pharmacist who will be able to help you check yours. In the UK, all adults over 40 are advised to have their blood pressure checked at least every five years.
“There isn’t always an explanation for the cause of high blood pressure, but most people will develop high blood pressure because of their diet, lifestyle or medical condition,” Chloe MacArthur, a senior cardiac nurse from the British Heart Foundation (BHF), tells HuffPost UK.
High blood pressure can also run in families and worsen with age.
While medicine is an important tool in reducing hypertension, as the study suggests, lifestyle changes can also help lower your blood pressure. Here, MacArthur shares tips on how to set about lowering that reading.
Regular physical activity
Your heart is a muscle and regular physical activity can make it stronger. The stronger it is, the less work it is for the heart to pump, which then allows the pressure within your blood vessels to improve, explains MacArthur.
Aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week. Stuck for ideas? Try brisk walking, riding a bike, dancing, doubles tennis, pushing a lawn mower, walking up stairs a few times, hiking, jogging, running, using a skipping rope or even rollerblading.
Cut down on salt
We all know a healthy balanced diet is better for us than one that’s high in fat, sugar and salt. A diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables is great news for your blood pressure too. One change to focus on in particular is cutting down on the amount of salt you consume.
Having too much salt in your diet can cause you to hold on to excess water fluid in your bloodstream, which will increase your blood pressure, warns MacArthur.
Eat more beetroot
A lesser known way to reduce your blood pressure is beetroot. “Past research funded by the BHF found that beetroot, as well as leafy green vegetables, were excellent sources of inorganic nitrate which can be incredibly effective in reducing and maintaining blood pressure,” says MacArthur.
For those looking to work dietary nitrate into their diets, the trick is not to boil the vegetables, but to steam, roast or drink in a smoothie, she advises.
Quit the cigs
The cardiac nurse points out that quitting smoking is “one of the single most important steps you can take” to lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. It’s thought the nicotine in such products can make your blood vessels narrow, which in turn can cause your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to increase.
Cut back on booze
We all know we should be drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol a week – that’s six pints of beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine. If you’re drinking less than that and your blood pressure is still high, you should try and cut down even more, if possible. Try opting for lower strength booze instead, or swapping pint glasses for half pints.
It’s not clear why alcohol raises blood pressure, however we do know that cutting down on booze is key to preventing it from rocketing. Studies have also found medication and physical exercise are great ways to combat alcohol-induced hypertension.
Steer clear of the coffee
Caffeine-addicts with hypertension will also need to cut down, as drinking more than four cups of coffee a day may increase your blood pressure, according to the NHS. Switch out a couple of afternoon brews for a glass of water instead, you’ll feel much better for it – and it’ll help you sleep better at night, too.
Sometimes lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to help control blood pressure, so you might need medication too. Common blood pressure medicines include: ACE inhibitors, angiotensin-2 receptor blockers (ARBs), calcium channel blockers, diuretics, beta blockers, and alpha blockers. Some people might require more than one type to keep their blood pressure under control.
“Reasons that a doctor may advise blood pressure medication include: if blood pressure is more than just a little high, lifestyle changes haven’t brought it down enough or if there are other health problems such as coronary artery disease or diabetes that might increase the risk of heart and circulatory disease,” says MacArthur.
If you’re worried about your blood pressure, speak to your GP who can advise you on what medication is best to take.