Hypertension: A Not-So-Normal (Albeit Common) Part of Aging

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the most important risk factor for premature death, accounting for half of all deaths caused by cardiovascular disease and 13.5% of all total deaths each year. Nine in ten Americans are expected to develop high blood pressure by the age of sixty-five. But is this condition really a “normal” part of aging?

What Blood Pressure Is
Blood pressure is the pressure of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. Arteries carry blood from your heart to other parts of your body.

Image source: CDC

Blood pressure is measured using a combination of systolic and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure represents blood force/pressure while the heart is beating and diastolic pressure stands for blood pressure/force when the heart is at rest between beats.

Systolic pressure is always the first or top measurement in a blood pressure reading and diastolic pressure is always the bottom measurement. For instance, in a reading of 130/80, 130 represents systolic pressure and 80 represents diastolic pressure.

Blood pressure ranges include:

  • Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg (though too low can also be problematic! This is where a functional view comes in!)
  • Prehypertension: Systolic between 120–129 and diastolic less than 80
  • Stage 1 high blood pressure: Systolic between 130–139 or diastolic between 80–89
  • Stage 2 high blood pressure: Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 mm Hg

Hypertension is blood pressure that is consistently higher than the normal level. The higher your blood pressure levels, the more risk you have for other cardiovascular problems, such as heart disease, heart attack, and brain conditions such as stroke.  Recent research suggests that even “high normal” blood pressure (120–129 / 80–84 mmHg) increases the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 46% on average.

Causes of High Blood Pressure

In order to avoid these serious health conditions, as well as others, it’s important to know exactly what causes high blood pressure. You guessed it, lifestyle is the biggest driving factor for our heart health. 

The “EPIC” study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine studied 23,000 people’s adherence to 4 simple behaviors (not smoking, exercising 3.5 hours a week, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight [BMI <30]). In those adhering to these behaviors, 93% of diabetes, 81% of heart attacks, 50% of strokes, and 36% of all cancers were prevented. And the INTERHEART study, published in the Lancet in 2004, followed 30,000 people and found that changing lifestyle could prevent at least 90% of all heart disease. 

These studies inform us that like most other chronic diseases, high blood pressure is caused by a mismatch between our genes and our modern diet and lifestyle. The factors listed below are all some of the common drivers for hypertension: 

  • Highly processed diet
  • Elevated blood glucose levels
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of sleep
  • Emotional stress
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Birth control pills
  • Heavy-metal poisoning

What to do about it, to start?

  1. Pull the sugar: Sugar is ubiquitous and is hiding in most packaged foods, including savory foods such as breads, soups, and meats. Additionally, while not sugar, flour products have the same effect on blood sugar as sugar does. As blood sugar rises, insulin also increases to bring blood sugar into the cell. Chronically high insulin levels lead to many problems, including kidney sodium retention, dysfunction along the linings of the blood vessels, decreased production of nitric oxide (which is necessary to dilate the blood vessels), and inflammation, thereby resulting in elevated blood pressure. Start by going through the packaged foods in your kitchen and begin replacing those that contain added sugars for those that don’t while stocking up on lots of whole foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, meats, eggs, and legumes).
  2. Ditch processed oils and fats: Contrary to conventional belief, industrial seed oils are not heart-healthy. Trans fats and processed industrial seed oils such as safflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, margarine, fryer oil and shortening increase inflammation and blood pressure. Industrial seed oils are highly processed in a series of steps akin to oil refinement to create gasoline. They’re also often high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, yet lacking in heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Many are also often derived from genetically-modified crops that can be further harmful to your health. Because of their extensive processing, they may be more susceptible to oxidation and breakdown, which could lead to the build-up of disease-causing free radicals inside the arteries, causing them to be weaker (and weaker arteries is what leads to plaque buildup!). Skip these oils, margarines, and most plant based “butters,” and opt for real butter, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil instead for cooking and eating.
  3. Stress Management: When faced with a stressful situation, our bodies react by releasing stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) into the blood. These hormones prepare the body for the “fight or flight” response by making the heart beat faster and constricting blood vessels to get more blood to the core of the body instead of the extremities. Blood pressure can also rise to alarming levels just by thinking or stressing about events. Imagined events have as much physiological effect as real ones. It’s important to incorporate a variety of stress management techniques throughout your day. Deep breathing, joyful movement, epsom salt baths, and meditation are all great techniques.
  4. Catch your Zzzz’s: Researchers in one study found that people who only slept six hours the previous night had higher blood pressure the next day as compared to those who had a great night’s sleep. Continued lack of sleep can compound this effect. When sleep is insufficient, stress hormones are released, which constrict blood vessels and increase inflammation. Setting yourself up for a good night of sleep begins first thing in the morning by getting sunlight directly into your eyes.

Hypertension may be common in older Americans, but as you can see, there are many factors at play that certainly do not warrant this to be a “normal” part of getting older!

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