It’s time to get educated about blood pressure. Both high and low blood pressure can cause serious health problems in patients of all ages, particularly in older adults. In this article, we’ll discuss what blood pressure is, how it affects the body, and blood pressure tips to help you keep your numbers where they should be.
What is Blood Pressure?
When blood circulates in the body, it puts a certain amount of pressure on the vessels as it moves. This is called blood pressure, and it’s a very important component of your overall health. If you’re ever heard your doctor talk about “hypertension,” they’re referring to high blood pressure, which can increase your risk for a host of health problems like heart attack and stroke. But it’s also possible for your blood pressure to be too low; low blood pressure (“hypotension”) can lead to problems like fainting episodes and mental confusion.
As we age, blood pressure typically increases naturally. Lots of factors contribute to this gradual increase, such as stiffer blood vessels and arteries, higher salt levels in the blood, or kidney changes, and in many cases, a major contributor is simply genetics. According to AARP, only seven percent of Americans 18-35 years old have hypertension, compared to 65 percent for those over the age of 60.
How Does Blood Pressure Affect the Body?
Blood pressure affects many bodily functions, and can cause problems when it’s too high or too low. To get a better idea of hypertension and hypotension in the body, we’ll look at examples of how different levels of blood pressure can affect the body.
High Blood Pressure
Over time, chronically high blood pressure can weaken blood vessels, which could lead to a stroke in the event of a rupture in the brain. Gradually stiffening arteries resulting from high blood pressure can also lead to heart disease, as the heart no longer receives enough blood and oxygen. Hypertension can also increase your risk of developing blood clots, which could lead to heart attacks or strokes. All of these risks have given hypertension the nickname “the silent killer” because of its asymptomatic but serious dangers.
Low Blood Pressure
Hypotension may be harmless, but in some cases, it can also lead to serious problems. Chronically low blood pressure can lead to decreased blood and oxygen to important organs like the brain and heart. A sudden drop in blood pressure could also lead to fainting episodes due to an abrupt lack of oxygen to the brain, which can pose serious risks for incidents like head injuries in the event of a fall.
Most of the time, changes in our blood pressure isn’t something we can feel, which is why it’s important to measure your blood pressure regularly. Blood pressure measurements can be taken at the doctor’s office, at home, or even in many grocery and convenience stores. During measuring, it’s important to remember that blood pressure changes throughout the day. The most accurate reading requires measurements throughout the day and night; a typical 24-hour blood pressure test takes readings up to every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes at night.
Stress can temporarily elevate blood pressure, as can exercise, or even a cup of coffee. In fact, a phenomenon called “white coat hypertension” describes a spike in blood pressure commonly seen from being at the doctor’s office. The body also follows natural cycles throughout the day which affects blood pressure. According to the Mayo Clinic, and lowest during sleep at night. As with all other bodily functions, however, every person is different, and each individual’s habits, risk factors, lifestyle, and more determine daily blood pressure fluctuations.
What Do My Blood Pressure Numbers Mean?
When measuring blood pressure, the result is always presented in two numbers. The “upper” number is called systolic blood pressure, and the “lower” number is called diastolic blood pressure. The units of measurement are “millimeters of mercury,” which is why you will always see “mmHg” following each number. Let’s explore these two numbers more in-depth:
Systolic Blood Pressure
The top number in a blood pressure reading is very important; this tells you the highest pressure your blood reaches as the heart pumps. For most aging adults, this is the number that’s most critical to watch.
Diastolic Blood Pressure
While systolic blood pressure describes the highest pressure your blood reaches, diastolic blood pressure (the lower number), describes the lowest blood pressure as your heart relaxes in between pumps.
Commonly, you will hear blood pressure readings reported aloud as systolic over diastolic, or for example, “115 over 80.” For most people, 115/80 would be considered a “good” reading, but what is best for one person may differ from the next.
Within the past decade, there has been an incredible amount of research on what the “best” blood pressure levels should be to minimize risk for health problems. Not surprisingly, not all the results are the same, and not all researchers agree. For example, some believe a systolic blood pressure under 140 is appropriate for those at risk for heart disease, while others argue that this pressure should be kept closer to an aggressively-managed 120 mmHg.
Even though conflicting research findings can seem confusing, the most important lesson is that each individual is different, and likely has a different ideal blood pressure range given their family history and genetics, risk factors and lifestyle, and more. For most adults over 60, a systolic blood pressure between 120 and 140 may be considered “normal,” and these numbers could be lower for those with kidney disease or those who are at high-risk for heart disease. For low blood pressure, however, most blood pressure readings below 90/60 represent hypotension.
While most people on blood pressure medications take multiple medications to achieve the best effect, there’s also risk associated with taking too many blood pressure medications. That’s why your doctor weighs the risks and benefits of each and every new medication to determine if it’s the right course. Fortunately, you can control your blood pressure with more than just medication. There are lots of great ways to regulate blood pressure with nutrition and lifestyle, which we’ll discuss next
Tips for Controlling Blood Pressure
Leading an active lifestyle and getting proper nutrition are great ways to support healthy blood pressure. If you’re trying to lower your blood pressure, taking steps to improve vessel elasticity and control blood volume are great places to start. Some daily tips for lowering blood pressure include:
Maintaining a healthy weight
Working towards a healthy weight is a great way to control blood pressure. In fact, AARP explains that losing five to ten percent of body fat can lead to a 5-point systolic blood pressure reduction all by itself. Isometric hand exercises, walking, and swimming are all great physical activities for lowering blood pressure.
Lowering your salt intake
When you eat salt, your body retains more water. This increase can lead to increased blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends between 1,500 and 2,300 mg of sodium a day for most adults. Americans tend to consume much more salt than this, particularly through processed foods and restaurant meals.
Eating potassium-rich foods
Did you know that those with a high-salt low-potassium diet have double the risk for fatal heart disease? Potassium plays many important roles in kidney and heart function, and helps to balance out the salt in the blood. Potatoes, bananas, and orange juice are great sources of dietary potassium.
Eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt
New research suggests that probiotics may help to support healthy blood pressure, which is why some doctors are now recommending “live culture” probiotics like yogurt be included in a blood-pressure-friendly diet.
Similarly, there are also steps you can take to control low blood pressure as well. Some tips include:
Wear compression socks
For those with hypotension, blood can pool in the legs because of low pressure. Compression socks can improve circulation and help this blood move back to the heart.
As we’ve already learned, blood volume is directly connected to blood pressure. Dehydration, therefore, lowers blood volume and can contribute to hypotension, as explained by the American Heart Association. That’s why it’s even more important for individuals with hypotension to drink plenty of fluids. Alcohol can have a similar effect of lowering blood volume, so those with hypotension should also limit alcohol intake.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals
According to the Mayo Clinic, eating smaller meals frequently throughout the day can help combat hypotension. After a large meal, blood pressure can drop dramatically, which can pose a problem for those with already low blood pressure.
Salt and caffeine may help – but always ask your doctor
For some individuals with chronic hypotension, increased salt and caffeine can help to raise blood pressure. However, both these substances can interact with other medications or health conditions, and may do damage to your overall health. Always consult with a doctor before supplementing.