With more than 4.7 million Australians living with high blood pressure, many unknowingly, understanding how your heart health and blood pressure evolve with age will help prevent serious health conditions in the long run. Pharmacist Eric Chan explains the difference between stable and high blood pressure, why your blood pressure changes with age and ways to help lower and treat high readings.
What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the pressure of the blood in the arteries as it is pumped around the body by the heart. It is commonly expressed as the ratio of systolic blood pressure (the pressure when the heart contracts) and diastolic blood pressure (the pressure when the heart relaxes).
What is high blood pressure?
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the long-term force of blood against your artery walls is high enough to potentially increase your risk of disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines high blood pressure as a blood pressure reading of 140/90 mmHg or more.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2017-2018), 34 per cent of Australian adults have high blood pressure, with 23 per cent having uncontrolled blood pressure and 11 per cent controlling their blood pressure with one or more daily medications.
Why do I need to know my blood pressure?
Many people with high blood pressure do not experience symptoms and may be surprised by their diagnosis. That’s why it is so important to get annual blood pressure evaluations to ensure your heart health is in check. Having untreated or unmanaged high blood pressure can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, so getting your blood pressure checked regularly is an easy, proactive step towards preventing chronic illness.
Why does blood pressure change as you age?
As we age, there are many different lifestyle and physiological factors that can contribute to increased blood pressure. Some of these include:
- Changes to your arteries. The walls of our arteries can become stiff, thick and narrow as we age, restricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet high in antioxidants and good fats may help protect your arteries as you age and promote healthy blood pressure.
- Unhealthy habits. While ageing gracefully is a gift, it’s not always a given. As you get older, your body’s exposure to unhealthy habits can gradually increase your blood pressure. Smoking, too much alcohol and high salt diets all increase your risk of high blood pressure. When food shopping, you should carefully read ingredient labels and look for foods with sodium levels less than 120 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams.
- Inadequate sleep. We all know the importance of a good night’s sleep, but as we get older, our sleep patterns can change. Frustrating episodes of waking up through the night, or waking too early can increase, as can snoring, sleep apnoea, insomnia and restless legs syndrome. Most adults need eight hours of sleep a night, and habitual sleep loss may increase the risk of high blood pressure.
- Excess tummy fat. It’s not uncommon to put on weight as you age, but putting on too much weight around your abdomen can really impact your heart health. Measuring your waist circumference helps you estimate your level of internal tummy fat. This layer of fat coats the organs of your body and may lead to the risk of high blood pressure. A waist circumference of less than 80cm for women and 94cm for men is ideal for reducing disease risk.
- Not exercising enough. Regular physical activity helps keep your heart strong, and a strong heart can pump blood with less effort, decreasing the pressure on your arteries. Regular exercise also helps you maintain a healthy weight, reducing unwanted tummy fat. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week, and if you’re starting a new exercise plan or have a chronic health condition, check with your doctor first.
- Menopause. The decrease in oestrogen and other hormones associated with menopause affects almost every tissue in the body, including the cardiovascular system, which in turn increases the risk of high blood pressure. Exercising and eating well are important to manage the symptoms of menopause and look after your heart.
- Kidney disease. High blood pressure is both a cause and symptom of kidney disease. Risk factors for kidney disease include diabetes, obesity and ageing. If you have kidney disease, working with your doctor to maintain a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet and exercise moderately will help reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure.
- Stress. While it can sometimes be unavoidable, stress can cause high blood pressure through repeated pressure elevations and stimulation of blood vessel constricting hormones by the nervous system. Studies have shown that various natural approaches to reducing stress, including meditation, acupressure and music therapy, effectively lower blood pressure.
How do you treat high blood pressure?
Mild high blood pressure can often be treated by making lifestyle changes, including:
- regular, moderate exercise
- quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake
- eating a Mediterranean-style diet, rich with antioxidants, good fats and low healthy carbohydrates
- maintaining a healthy body weight and waist circumference.
If lifestyle changes are not enough, your doctor may prescribe medication to help reduce your blood pressure to normal levels.
Someone whose blood pressure is very high, causing symptoms such as headaches, or has a chronic health condition such as heart disease, may need urgent treatment with medications to lower blood pressure.
If you believe you’re at risk of developing high blood pressure or want to monitor your blood pressure, consult your GP or healthcare practitioner.
Eric Chan is head of pharmacy at Blooms The Chemist.
Is high or low blood pressure a concern for you? Has it become a concern as you’ve aged? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?
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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.