You may recall my Fathers’ Day article encouraging men to get to the doctor. My husband, Bill, had not been to the doctor in about 18 years, and, like most men I know, didn’t feel he needed to go. He’s one of those guys who would be bleeding out of his eyes, would wipe the blood away and reason that it would clear up on its own. I guess the article did some good, because he finally went.  

After enduring the dreaded DRE and a series of other exams, the doc informed him he might have hypertension. To rule out the white coat phenomenon which tends to increase blood pressure in fraidycat patients like Bill, he was told to pick up a blood pressure cuff at the drugstore, which easily confirmed the diagnosis.  

The force of blood rushing against the walls of the blood vessels is what is known as blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the blood presses too hard against the vessel walls.

Narrowed blood vessels, more blood than normal moving through the vessels, or the heart beating too hard or too fast create blood pressure. Hypertension damages the vessel walls, causing them to attract fatty substances, which can layer up, harden and become plaque. This build-up narrows the vessels, reducing and blocking blood flow. When blood does not flow as it should, heart failure, blindness, stroke and kidney failure are likely to occur.

Hypertension can occur in anyone, but those most likely to get it include people who: are overweight, have high cholesterol, have diabetes, have a family history, smoke, are male, are older than 60 or are black. Also, women who take birth control pills or are post-menopausal are at risk.

There are no warning signs, no symptoms, and that is why hypertension is often referred to as the "silent killer."

Therefore, getting blood pressure checked by a doctor on a regular basis is the only way to know if there is a problem. A blood pressure reading will provide two numbers, one is systolic pressure (the higher number showing how hard the pressure is when the heart beats) and the other is diastolic (the lower number showing how hard the pressure is when the heart is at rest). According to the American Heart Association, a normal reading is 120 over 80 or lower. A reading of 140 over 90 is considered high.

While high blood pressure cannot be cured, it can be managed. Treatments to bring blood pressure down can include: losing weight, drinking less alcohol and caffeine, quitting smoking, exercising, reducing stress and eating right. In particular, a low-sodium diet of less than 2,300 milligrams per day should be followed. Healthy daily choices that eliminate table salt (a quarter teaspoon has 600 milligrams of sodium), and processed foods (most are very high in sodium) are a great first step toward controlling hypertension. If these treatments are unsuccessful, medication will be prescribed.

In Bill’s case, although he is a runner and eats a balanced diet, it’s not enough. He has to avoid sodium, which is found in nearly all packaged foods, so the deli turkey sandwich he makes for lunch everyday has been replaced with an organicm, home-cooked turkey breast that’s sliced off and made into sandwiches on low-sodium, condiment-free bread. Fortunately, Bill has good habits, so the changes haven’t been dramatic. And, to help matters, the words “I told you so,” have never once passed through my lips (although he is quick to point out they’re now in print).

Let this be a lesson to everyone to get your blood pressure checked. Getting a handle early, following doctors’ orders and taking immediate steps to reduce blood pressure will increase your ability to live a long, healthy life.