Stay ahead of the ‘silent killer’ |

Stay ahead of the ‘silent killer’

It’s called “the silent killer” for good reason. It’s a disease that can stalk you for years and you’ll never know it. You look good and feel fine. But with every beat of your heart, this unnoticed aggressor is increasing your risk of coronary disease, stroke, kidney failure, visual loss and dementia.

I’m talking about high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. More than 28 percent of American adults have been diagnosed with it, and half that many more have it but are unaware.

If you aren’t sure that your blood pressure is normal, now may be a good time to get it checked.

A new study shows that blood pressures tend to rise during the winter months. More than 440,000 veterans with known hypertension had their blood pressures measured frequently throughout the year.

In every city, from frigid Anchorage to tropical San Juan, the veterans’ blood pressures rose during the winter months. On average, blood pressures in February were about 8 percent higher than in August.

The seasonal upturn isn’t because of colder weather or shorter daylight, the researchers concluded. Instead, they said blood pressures spike in the winter because people generally eat more unhealthy foods and exercise less during those months.

If so, this study offers more proof that the way you choose to live influences your risk of developing high blood pressure. While it is true that unmodifiable factors such as family history and genetics can affect your risk, lifestyle factors that you can change have a much bigger impact.

Weight gain, physical inactivity, high salt and fat consumption, smoking and excessive alcohol use all disturb the health of blood vessels. Over time, these factors can cause blood pressure to rise, with all the disastrous complications that follow.

The numbers used to measure blood pressure normally fluctuate throughout the day. A diagnosis of hypertension usually requires at least three separate measurements by a doctor or nurse that each show a systolic pressure greater than or equal to 140 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure at or above 90 mm Hg.

People whose systolic blood pressure tops out in the range of 120 to 139 mm Hg, or whose diastolic pressure is in the 80 to 89 mm Hg range nowadays are told they have “prehypertension,” meaning they are at high risk of developing high blood pressure if they do not adopt a healthy lifestyle. About 59 million Americans are thought to have prehypertension, and the number is growing in tandem with the obesity epidemic.

If your blood pressure isn’t consistently below 120/80 mm Hg, it’s time to take decisive action. Steps include:

— Seeing your health-care provider regularly so that your blood pressure can be checked.

— Maintaining a healthy body weight, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in salt, saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol.

— Limiting alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men, one for women.

— Quitting smoking.

— Engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day.

If you already have high blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe medications in addition to lifestyle changes to bring it under control. Make sure you understand how and when to take these medications so you get the maximum benefit.

Don’t let high blood pressure sneak up on you. Learn your blood pressure numbers and let them motivate you to begin a healthier lifestyle.

– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is the El Dorado County health officer. He can be reached at

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