High blood pressure is a ‘silent killer’ — but many still don’t know the risks

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High blood pressure can lead to stroke and other heart diseases.

We all know what high blood pressure is, but some experts say most still don’t know exactly what the risks of this “silent killer” looks like.

“I think there is a gap in understanding what elevated blood pressure is and what are the risk factors,” says Dr. Peter Mitoff, a cardiologist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto. “There is a need for education… there’s a misconception that high blood pressure and hypertension [are] problems for elderly people.”

Mitoff adds, in his experience, he is seeing a lot more young patients, and catching high blood pressure earlier will only benefit a person’s health in the long run.

“The difficulty is most people don’t feel any different when they have high blood pressure,” he says, noting that because it is a “silent killer,” people can go on for years not knowing they have it before it’s too late.

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This could mean developing heart complications, stroke or suffering a heart attack.

READ MORE: ‘Masked’ hypertension: You may have high blood pressure and not even know, docs warn

Pumping blood

Blood pressure is a measure of force of blood against the walls of your arteries, the Heart and Stroke Foundation reports. Mitoff says our heart has two phases — squeezing and relaxing.

He adds health professionals read blood pressure by two measurements called systolic and diastolic.

“The systolic (top) number is the measure of the pressure force when your heart contracts and pushes out the blood. The diastolic (bottom) number is the measure of when your heart relaxes between beats,” the foundation notes.

This way, Mitoff adds, doctors are able to see if you are low-risk or high-risk.

READ MORE: Generic blood pressure, depression drugs to see up to 90% price cuts

And while there is no true “cut-off” of what is considered high and low (this varies from patient to patient), he says someone who is 135/85 is considered high-risk.

Anything under 120/80, he says, would be considered low-risk. “If it drops too low, people can be light-headed, dizzy and have a risk of falling.”

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The foundation notes if you have diabetes, the high-risk category for your blood pressure is slightly lower at 130/80.

The risks involved

Mitoff says because some people may not know they have high blood pressure, they often don’t know they are at risk of a stroke or heart attack until they get one. “It is a cumulative effect of having it for years and the extra strain on your blood vessels.”

This is why he stresses getting checked regularly by your doctor (or even in a drugstore or gym) is crucial.

For people with low blood pressure, symptoms can include feeling dizzy, light-headed or sudden dizziness from changing positions, like getting up too quickly. Others may also faint, which could lead to other injuries like broken hips or head injuries.

On the flip side, if your blood pressure is continuously high, this is considered hypertension — which doesn’t come with symptoms.

Prevention tips

Mitoff says high blood pressure is preventable but it starts with making changes in your lifestyle. Some people may also turn to medication.

“The problem with treatment is that most people don’t feel any different. Medication isn’t going to make them feel better, if anything, some medication has side effects,” he says, adding it is more sustainable to start making long-term lifestyle changes.

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READ MORE: One-fifth of Canadians diagnosed with hypertension don’t actually have it — study

Below, Mitoff shares some of his prevention tips — besides getting your blood pressure regularly checked:

Exercise: Exercising has a lot of benefits, but for someone with high blood pressure, it is extremely useful. Even losing five to 10 pounds, he adds, can help bring down your pressure.
Change your diet: Cut back on salt and load up on the fruits and veggies. Experts recommend the DASH diet for patients with high blood pressure.
Alcohol: Too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. Stick to a moderate amount which is one drink per day for women or two per day for men.
Reduce stress: Besides excising, find ways to reduce everyday stress. This can include more quiet time, getting a massage or finding time to unplug.
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