Most of the people reading this website are probably very well aware of the risks of having hypertension, or “high” blood pressure, including a greater chance of developing heart disease or having a stroke. But now new research has found that even just “a little elevation” in blood pressure — what previously was considered safe — can increase your risk of stroke.
The study, which took place at the University of California, San Diego, showed that people with blood pressure readings previously considered safe actually had a 50 percent greater risk of stroke than those with normal blood pressure.1 The researchers evaluated the findings from 12 different studies that had a combined total of nearly 520,000 participants.
Prehypertension, in which one has slightly high blood pressure, is believed to affect close to one-third of the population of the United States. Scarily, there are no symptoms to alert you that you even have the condition. When you have normal blood pressure, your systolic reading is less than 120 and your diastolic reading is less than 80. With prehypertension, the systolic measures between 120 and 139, while the diastolic measures between 80 and 89. Anything higher than those numbers, and you are diagnosed with hypertension.
The study’s scientists determined that those people with blood pressure just over normal — a systolic reading of 120 to 129 and a diastolic reading of 80 to 84 — didn’t face a significantly higher stroke risk than those with normal readings. However, there was a major difference for those whose blood pressure measurements were just above that — closer to hypertensive but without actually reaching it. And in those people with a systolic pressure between 130 and 139 and a diastolic pressure between 85 and 89 and who were under the age of 65, the risk of a stroke was almost 80 percent higher than in those with normal blood pressure. To repeat, that was in subjects under the age of 65! Perhaps this plays a major role in the increasing incidence of strokes.
This is hardly the first time we have reported here about strokes on the rise, especially in younger people. This past spring, we wrote about a study conducted at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that found that the rate of strokes in children and younger adults has risen tremendously between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s — in some age groups as much as 51 percent.
We don’t know how many of these younger people had been diagnosed with hypertension or prehypertension, but it’s probably safe to say that quite a few of them most likely had elevated blood pressure to some degree. And now we know that certain levels of prehypertension are very dangerous.
So, what causes high blood pressure and what can we do to treat it? Actually, what causes it is fairly simple physics. You’re pumping fluid (blood) through a tube (your arteries). That means:
- If the tube narrows (from a build-up of plaque) the pressure will increase.
- If the tube becomes rigid (hardening of the arteries) and can’t expand as blood surges through it with each beat of the heart, pressure will increase.
- If the muscles surrounding the tube constrict (stress and tension), that prevents the tube from expanding, which increases pressure.
- If the amount of fluid increases (kidney failure), the pressure will increase.
And in fact, high blood pressure has been linked in studies with a number of risk factors including obesity, smoking, lack of exercise, age, kidney disease, and family history of the condition. These factors can all lead to the four rules of physics described above, which all make the heart work harder and lead to further damage the arteries, creating hypertension.
Treatment options truly depend on who is doing the treating. Doctors rely almost exclusively on pharmaceutical drugs to control high blood pressure. There are four major classes of drugs they use. Diuretics reduce pressure by making you urinate, thereby reducing the volume of fluid in your blood and reducing the pressure. Calcium channel blockers work to relax and widen the arteries, which reduces blood pressure. Beta blockers weaken the heart so it won’t pump as strongly, reducing blood pressure. And ACE inhibitors also work to relax and widen the arteries. Unfortunately, all of these medications provide serious side effects, including increased risk of strokes, heart attack, congestive heart failure, and severe kidney damage. And in truth, they all deal with the symptoms of high blood pressure not its actual causes.
If those options don’t sound so appealing, there are other ways to combat hypertension. Start by losing weight. The more body mass you have, the more pressure you need to force blood through the system. If you lose weight, less pressure is required. If you smoke, stop. (No, really. Stop!) Try meditation or biofeedback to reduce stress. Stress increases heart rate and blood pressure; so lowering stress levels can help drop your blood pressure levels significantly. Changes to your diet such as including more omega-3 fatty acids and supplementing with proteolytic enzymes can reduce systemic inflammation and actually help remove arterial plaque build-up, thus opening up your arteries. Herbs such as passionflower, apocynum venetum, hawthorne, and stevia have all been shown in clinical studies to help lower blood pressure as well.
The choices you make can dramatically change your well being. Getting your blood pressure under control is essential, and it can make a tremendous impact on just how healthy your future will be.
1 Lee, M.; Saver, J.L.; Chang, B.; et al. “Presence of Baseline Prehypertension and Risk of Incident Stroke.” Neurology. 4 October 2011. AAN Enterprises, Inc. 3 October 2011. <http://www.neurology.org/content/77/14/1330.abstract?sid=e9a278af-1740-4854-871f-8742f99c36d5>.