Ticking Time Bomb: Fighting the #1 Killer in the U.S.


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February is American Heart Month, a time when the nation spotlights the #1 killer of Americans—heart disease. This is the 57th annual commemoration of heart health awareness in the United States, underscoring just how prevalent heart disease has been, is, and will continue to be.

While heart disease remains the #1 health threat in the U.S.—take that COVID-19—you do not have to be among the 655,000 Americans who succumb to it each year.

There are many things you can do to take control of your health and reduce your risk of heart problems without medication. In honor of this important time of year, we highlight one of the biggest and most important ways to protect your heart—and brain, as science now shows—against the dangers of hypertension.

How hypertension affects more than your heart

With every heartbeat, blood flows from your heart to the rest of your body through your arteries.

Blood pressure is the force of that blood pushing against your artery walls. It is normal for your blood pressure to rise and fall throughout the day. But if it stays high for too long, the constant force on your arteries can create microscopic tears. These tears can turn into scar tissue, providing the perfect lodging place for fat, cholesterol, and other particles—collectively called plaque.  

Buildup of plaque narrows the arteries, which requires your heart to work extra hard to push blood through, causing spikes in blood pressure. When untreated, high blood pressure (or hypertension) is a ticking time bomb.

Most people experience no symptoms, often having high blood pressure without knowing. Left undetected or uncontrolled, hypertension can lead to heart disease, heart attack, stroke, kidney damage/failure, vision loss, peripheral artery disease, and sexual dysfunction.

But that’s not all…

The brain and blood pressure connection

Research is starting to show just how far-reaching the effects of hypertension can be, affecting not just the blood vessels in the brain, but also how the brain functions. A recently published study in Hypertension, the journal of the American Heart Association, found that high blood pressure appears to accelerate cognitive decline.1

Researchers analyzed existing data on 7,063 people, average age 59 at the start of the trial. They studied a variety of mental and brain function analyses, including memory, verbal fluency, and executive function (attention, concentration, reasoning).

They discovered that mild, uncontrolled hypertension/prehypertension was associated with faster decline in cognitive performance among middle age Americans and older. This happened regardless of how long a person’s hypertensive history—even a short bout of hypertension accelerated the speed of cognitive decline.

On the other hand, those with controlled hypertension did not experience these rapid declines in memory or cognitive function, which highlights the need to control blood pressure, regardless of age. As scientists in this study concluded, “In addition to hypertension, prehypertension and pressure control might be critical for the preservation of cognitive function.”

Other research confirms the importance of keeping heart health risk factors under control, especially for the prevention of dementia. In one study of 1,449 people, those who had better control over modifiable heart disease risk factors had lower risk of dementia later in life.

Study participants were followed from as early as 1972 until 1987. They were first evaluated in 1998. Heart health was measured using smoking status, exercise, body mass index, fasting glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure, and participants were categorized into “poor,” “intermediate,” or “ideal”—another dementia-free group was reassessed between 2005-2008.

Those who had intermediate or ideal scores starting in midlife had lower risk of dementia later in life than people with poor scores. 2

The case for your own blood pressure monitor

There are many things you can do to get hypertension under control. If your blood pressure is extremely high, medication may be your best course of action. Of course, be sure to work closely with your doctor on an appropriate treatment plan.

But if you fall in the mild-to-moderate range (or if you’re prehypertensive), lifestyle changes and supplements can make a real difference. And purchasing your own blood pressure monitor to get your blood pressure readings at home is also a good idea

Most people only have their blood pressure taken at the doctor’s office—but these readings can be notoriously inaccurate. Up to 20% of the population experiences a phenomenon called “white coat syndrome,” which causes blood pressure to surge due to nerves and anxiety. This obviously poses a problem for doctors—they don’t want to misdiagnose you with hypertension if you don’t really have it.

Taking your blood pressure at home and keeping a log provides a longer-term view and offers a much clearer picture of your blood pressure fluctuations over time. This is obviously much more useful to your doctor than your blood pressure taken at one moment in time, while you’re sitting nervously on a medical table in a paper robe.

It also allows you to take your pressure on both arms and record any differences. You’re probably used to having your pressure checked on your left arm only, but new research finds that a difference in blood pressure of 10 mmHg between arms is linked to higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and even early death.3

5 tips for successful at-home blood pressure monitoring

If you have hypertension, consider investing in a home monitor and keeping a log of your readings.

There are countless blood pressure monitors available online and in big box stores or pharmacies. With so many choices, it can be overwhelming to pick the right one for you. We can hopefully make this a little easier for you. Our sister company Generation Guard sells high-quality arm and wrist monitors that you can trust to give you accurate readings using state-of-the-art technology. Even better, use the coupon code NNH10Heart at checkout to save 10%.

Here are 5 tips to assure the most accurate readings at home.

  1. Take your blood pressure twice a day—morning and evening. At each reading, take two to three measurements (spaced about one minute apart) to make sure they are similar. Based on the new research discussed above, be sure to take your blood pressure on both arms and record the difference between arms.
  2. Avoid common blood triggers. 30 minutes prior to measuring, avoid caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and exercise—and empty your bladder.
  3. Sit quietly and calmly for at least three to four minutes beforehand. Uncross your legs and ankles before and during the reading.
  4. Position your arm properly by resting it on the table or chair arm at heart level. Place the cuff on your bare skin, not on top of clothing.
  5. Keep a record. If your monitor does not record your readings automatically, be sure to log them—making note of the arm used.

 Even if your blood pressure is normal, it doesn’t hurt to measure it occasionally. Knowing where you stand puts you in much greater control of your health. And, along with making proven lifestyle changes, having an in-home blood pressure monitor is a smart way to keep the deadliest killer in the U.S. from catching you off guard

And that is great news for your heart and your brain.

Take good care.

References

  1. de Menezes ST, et al. Hypertension, prehypertension, and hypertension control: Association with decline in cognitive performance in the ELSA-Brasil cohort. 2021 Feb;77(2):672-81.
  2. Liang Y, et al. Cardiovascular health metrics from mid- to late-life and risk of dementia: A population-based cohort study in Finland. PLoS Med. 2020 Dec 15;17(12):e1003474.
  3. Clark C, et al. Associations Between Systolic Interarm Differences in Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Disease Outcomes and Mortality: Individual Participant Data Meta-Analysis, Development and Validation of a Prognostic Algorithm: The INTERPRESS-IPD Collaboration. Hypertension. 2021 Feb;77(2):650-61.

Disclaimer: Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Last Updated: February 10, 2021
Originally Published: February 10, 2021