High blood pressure: one of the biggest killers in the UK
1:00pm Saturday 14th September 2013 in News
HIGH blood pressure is the biggest cause of premature death in the UK but it can be easily detected with simple tests, as Know Your Numbers Week aims to highlight.
High blood pressure can cause a host of serious, and potentially fatal, problems, but often without any obvious symptoms, hence it's dubbed a 'silent killer'.
The condition, also known as hypertension, is the biggest known cause of premature death and disability in the UK, due to the strokes, heart attacks and heart disease it can cause, and is also a risk factor for kidney disease and dementia.
It's believed that around 16 million UK adults are affected, making them three times more likely to develop heart disease and stroke, and twice as likely to die from such conditions - yet many people don't bother to take the quick, simple and painless step of having their blood pressure measured.
As a result, a third - that's more than five million people - don't know they have it, says Blood Pressure UK, as there are usually no symptoms.
The charity points out that there are 62,000 deaths every year from stroke and heart attacks due to poor blood pressure control. Plus, it's estimated that, annually, 120,000 heart attacks and strokes could be avoided if people lowered their blood pressure.
These stats are a major reason behind Blood Pressure UK's drive to get people to have their blood pressure tested during Know Your Numbers Week (September 16-22).
More than 1,500 'Pressure Stations' will be set up throughout the UK during the campaign, in pharmacies, workplaces, GP surgeries, leisure centres and shops, offering free checks.
"The only way you can know your blood pressure is to have it tested," says Katharine Jenner, Blood Pressure UK's chief executive.
"Once you know your numbers, you can take action by speaking to your GP and practice nurse to make sure it's properly controlled.
"We're twice as likely to know our lottery numbers as we are our blood pressure. Knowing your lottery numbers might not win you the lottery, but knowing your blood pressure might save your life," she adds.
Contrary to popular belief, raised blood pressure is usually symptomless.
"It's a myth that it causes headaches," says Professor Gareth Beevers, an expert in hypertension and one of the charity's trustees.
"I did a study which found there's absolutely no association between headaches and high blood pressure - being diagnosed as hypertensive and having to come to hospital does cause headaches connected to the labelling and treatment, rather than the high blood pressure causing it.
"It's a silent killer."
While the over 55s are most at risk, any adult can suffer from the problem, Beevers adds.
It's also more common in people who are obese, consume a lot of salt, have a strong family history of hypertension, and alcoholics.
Plus, Beevers says that it's been recognised recently that women who've had high blood pressure in pregnancy have a fourfold increased chance of suffering from high blood pressure in later life.
So what exactly is blood pressure? Basically, it's the pressure of blood in the arteries. If it's too high it can narrow the arteries and blood vessels, leading to brain or heart damage, or clots forming.
As well as having your blood pressure checked by a medical professional, Beevers recommends that people also buy their own blood pressure kits to measure it at home, and advises that the ones with arm cuffs, rather than wrist cuffs, tend to be more reliable.
In about 5% of people with high blood pressure, there's an underlying cause - usually kidney disease or hormone disorders. The remaining 95% have what's termed as essential hypertension, usually caused by lifestyle factors or genetics.
There's a common belief that being under stress sends blood pressure soaring, but Beevers says that, while acute stress can indeed cause an acute rise in blood pressure - so a patient might get stressed about having their blood pressure taken and their blood pressure might rise temporarily - there's no convincing evidence that chronic stress, over a long term, causes chronic high blood pressure.
A single high blood pressure reading isn't enough to diagnose the condition, as the rise may just be temporary and quickly return to normal.
But if repeated tests consistently give high readings, one of the three main classes of blood pressure medication (usually prescribed according to age) may be given.
Beevers says such drugs are very effective, almost completely free of side-effects, and "do exactly what you want them to do".
"The treatment's so successful that you could argue it's more impressive in the history of medicine than the invention of antibiotics," he adds. "It really is as big as that - it greatly prevents conditions like heart attack and stroke.
"But people need to get their blood pressure checked in the first place to be able to start dealing with it."
Know your numbers :: Blood pressure numbers show how hard the blood is pushing against the sides of blood vessels as it travels round the body.
:: The first number in a blood pressure measurement of, for example, 120/80mmHg is the systolic pressure, when the heart pushes blood around the body. The second number is the diastolic pressure, when the heart relaxes.
:: Blood pressure usually ranges between 90 to 250 for the top (systolic) number, and 60 to 140 for the bottom (diastolic) number.
:: The ideal healthy blood pressure is 120/80 or less.
:: The level used to diagnose high blood pressure is 140/90mmHg.
Reduce high blood pressure :: Salt is a big factor in high blood pressure. Cut down by eating less processed food and not adding extra salt to meals or cooking. Salt carries water inside the body and can cause cells to swell slightly, or allows calcium into cells which can also increase blood pressure.
:: Increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption and make sure you eat the recommended five-a-day. Fruit and vegetables contain potassium that counters the effect of salt and helps lower blood pressure.
:: Drink alcohol in moderation (three to four units per day for men and no more than two to three units per day for women). Drinking more than the recommended limits over a long period will slowly raise blood pressure.
:: Increase activity levels, as being active exercises the heart and helps arteries stay flexible.
:: Lose weight if necessary. Excess weight puts extra strain on the heart and arteries.
: Know Your Numbers Week runs from September 16-22. For more information visit www.bloodpressureuk.org
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