The Silent Killer: What You Need to Know About High Blood Pressure
8 million adults in Canada have high blood pressure, and Heather Evans is one of them. She and two experts weigh in on what it takes to prevent, manage and beat this condition.
Photo: Heart & Stroke
“I knew nothing about blood pressure,” says Heather. “I had to make changes to my lifestyle to improve my blood pressure, including reducing my sodium intake, cutting out all caffeine and taking daily medication.”
While everyone experiences high blood pressure from time to time— including during exercise or in stressful situations— it becomes a problem when blood pressure remains elevated over a period of time. This is referred to as hypertension – ‘hyper’ meaning ‘too much’ and ‘tension’ referring to the pressure in the arteries.
This causes the heart to work harder than normal to pump blood through the blood vessels and can lead to heart failure, heart attack, stroke, kidney disease and kidney failure. It’s also been linked to dementia.
“Blood pressure is a big part of heart disease — a huge part,” she says. “I now watch my blood pressure like a hawk, checking it regularly. And my blood pressure medication plays a big part in keeping me here.”
Heather wishes she had known more about high blood pressure. “I would have made changes to my lifestyle earlier,” she says. “My salt and caffeine intakes were both very high.”
Her commitment to healthy living as part of managing her blood pressure now extends to every part of her life. She is proud that her son, Skyler stays physically active and eats a healthy diet, which lowers his risk of developing high blood pressure.
Photo: Heart & Stroke
The silent killer
According to a new Heart & Stroke survey, eight in 10 health professionals are extremely worried about high blood pressure in Canada —it is the number one risk factor for stroke and a major risk factor for heart disease.
High blood pressure is often described as the ‘silent killer’ because there are usually no warning signs. More than seven in 10 health professionals surveyed are worried that people do not realize when they develop high blood pressure, and that they do not understand what it is, or the risks associated with it.
“The only way to detect high blood pressure is to monitor it regularly,” says Dr. Patrice Lindsay, Director of Health Systems Change at Heart & Stroke. “It can be checked at the pharmacy or at home, but you should also have your healthcare provider monitor it on a regular basis, such as during periodic checkups. If they tell you you’re at a moderate or high risk of developing high blood pressure, then it should be checked at least once per year.”
“While you cannot control all of your risk factors for high blood pressure, such as your family history, incorporating healthy habits into your daily routine, as best you can, will make a big impact on your blood pressure,” she adds.
More needs to be done
“The good news is that preventing and treating high blood pressure is a very effective way to reduce stroke and heart disease,” says Lindsay. “But there’s still more that needs to be done to get us there.”
“One of the biggest barriers to the diagnosis and treatment of high blood pressure is lack of access to family doctors and healthcare professionals,” she explains. “Ensuring access to regular care and follow-up with health professionals, providing education related to blood pressure and doing more routine blood pressure screenings in the community are key to raising Canadians’ awareness of high blood pressure, and diagnosing the condition early. We also need to address social determinants of health, like access to housing and nutritious foods.”
Advancing research is also key to better understanding risk factors—especially those that cannot be controlled— like age, ethnicity, family history and gender.
Dr. Kara Nerenberg, a Heart & Stroke funded researcher, is examining high blood pressure disorders that can occur during pregnancy to assess women’s risk of developing stroke or heart disease later in life. She believes more work needs to be done around the social determinants of health to address and prevent cardiovascular risk.
“We are starting to better understand how ethnicity, financial status, education, social roles, sex and gender intersect to play a role in people’s health journey, including their heart and brain health,” says Nerenberg, “This will help us develop better interventions.”
“Research like Dr. Nerenberg’s, lifestyle changes like Heather’s and actions that address barriers to care and other inequities in our communities are all part of beating this silent killer,” adds Lindsay.
For more information on high blood pressure, visit heartandstroke.ca/bloodpressure.
Steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure:
- Reduce the amount of salt you eat
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, beans and lentils
- Be smoke-free
- Be physically active for at least 2 1/2 hours per week
- Engage in healthy ways to manage your stress – try to find relief through physical activity, socializing, laughter, healthy eating and getting help when needed
- If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to small amounts, pace yourself and drink plenty of water in between.