How lifestyle changes could help control high blood pressure

Written by Jane Worthington for Australian Seniors. Here, she interviews Dr Anastasia Mihailidou.

High blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension, is one of Australia’s biggest silent killers. 

“It is often without symptoms,” says Dr Anastasia Mihailidou, head of the Cardiovascular and Hormonal Research Laboratory at the Kolling Institute. 

“Untreated hypertension can lead to heart attack, stroke and kidney disease and the risk increases with every passing decade.” 

About 10% of young adults in Australia have uncontrolled blood pressure, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data. This increases to roughly 40% of those in their mid 60s, and nearly 50% by age 85. “While more men than women have uncontrolled blood pressure, this changes after menopause when women have a similar risk,” says Dr Mihailidou.

Hypertension is more likely in those who lead sedentary lives, smoke, drink, are overweight, eat a lot of salt, have high cholesterol or diabetes, or have a family history of the condition. 

Blood pressure is a measurement given as two figures – systolic, the pressure in the artery as the heart contracts, and diastolic, the pressure in the artery when the heart is relaxing and being filled with blood. A blood pressure reading is considered normal when below 120/80. Blood pressure is considered high if the reading is persistently higher than 140/90.

“Hypertension makes the heart work harder and the force of extra blood pumping around the body can cause complications in the brain and kidney,” says Dr Mihailidou. “It also impacts the arteries themselves by causing cellular changes to the artery lining that make arteries less flexible as we age.” 

Once diagnosed, however, high blood pressure can be controlled, either by making healthy lifestyle changes, or with prescription medication.

5 tips for managing hypertension from Dr Anastasia Mihailidou

1. Know your blood pressure numbers 

Visit your GP for a Medicare-funded over 45s Heart Health Check, which includes blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar level monitoring. Blood pressure for the over 50s should be checked yearly.

2. Weigh up your risk 

Increases in weight are associated with heightened blood pressure. Reducing weight by even 1kg can mean a lowering of blood pressure, and there is often a larger reduction when average weight loss is more than 5kg. 

3. Watch salt and alcohol   

Read labels and look for low-salt foods – that is, less than 120mg of sodium per 100g. Almost one in five cases of blood pressure is linked to alcohol, and drinkers who reduce their daily alcohol intake to one drink per day can also significantly lower blood pressure.  

4. Exercise and get active regularly

More than 50% of Australians are not active enough, with strong evidence sedentary behaviour leads to cardiovascular complications. Search ‘exercise guidelines’ at health.gov.au for advice, or join one of 1,200 free walking groups – go to walking.heartfoundation.org.au

5. Monitor blood pressure measurements accurately 

Avoid coffee and smoking for 30 minutes before a reading. Measurements should be taken on more than one occasion, and a high blood pressure reading in clinic should be confirmed with either 24-hour blood pressure monitoring, or measurements at home taken over the course of a week. 

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