Mini Medical School: High Blood Pressure: The Silent Killer

December 9, 2021

Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure and Alabama has the highest U.S. death rate from the chronic condition, often referred to as a “silent killer” because it can have life-threatening consequences, such as heart disease and stroke, but produce few symptoms.

“As many as 40% of people with high blood pressure don’t know they have it,” Dr. Louanne Friend, associate professor of community medicine and population health with the College of Community Health Sciences, said during a Mini Medical School presentation in November. Mini Medical School is a collaboration of The University of Alabama’s OLLI program and CCHS.

Friend said knowing your blood pressure numbers and living a healthy lifestyle are key. “Blood pressure control is the single most effective thing we can do to save lives,” she said.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries is consistently too high. Over time, this pressure damages arteries, which results in less blood flow to vital organs, including the heart, brain and kidneys, Friend said.

Blood pressure consists of two numbers. The first number refers to systolic pressure, the pressure against artery walls as the heart contracts or beats. The second number refers to diastolic pressure as the heart rests between beats and blood vessels are relaxed.

The higher the blood pressure, the harder the heart has to work to pump blood.

Normal blood pressure is considered to be 120/80 or less. A target of 130/80 is recommended, Friend said.

She said a diagnosis of high blood pressure comes with two to three readings spread apart, not one right after the other, of 140/90. “If it remains high from the first to the second reading, providers may recommend medication,” she said.

Lifestyle changes can help, including a healthy diet, physical activity, limiting alcohol consumption, smoking cessation and reducing stress, Friend said.

For diet, she suggested emphasizing vegetables, fruit, whole grains and lean proteins, such as chicken and fish, and to minimize red and processed meats, refined carbohydrates, salt, sugars and trans fats.

Experts recommend 150 minutes of exercise each week, Friend noted. “Any increased physical activity is good,” she said. “Getting up and walking around and less sitting is helpful.”

She said while blood pressure control largely resides with the individual, “it is very much in our control.”