Take The Pressure Off

High blood pressure has become a serious health concern in this country. An estimated 50 million adults, including more than 50 percent of those older than 60, suffer from the condition. In response, the National High Blood Pressure Education Program (NHBPEP) has released new recommendations for preventing and controlling hypertension (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2002, vol. 288, no. 15). If your numbers are worrisome—systolic blood pressure (the first, higher number, which measures pressure of blood against artery walls when the heart contracts) at or above 140 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or diastolic blood pressure (the second, lower number, which measures pressure against artery walls when the heart relaxes between beats) at or above 90 mm Hg—take note.

A healthy lifestyle is paramount to keeping blood pressure in check. That means eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Experts also stress the importance of exercising and maintaining a healthy weight. In one recent study, people with normal blood pressure who increased their amount of exercise lowered their systolic blood pressure by more than 4 mm Hg (Annals of Internal Medicine, 2002, vol. 136, no. 7). An earlier study revealed that overweight participants who lost up to 8 pounds lowered their systolic levels, too (Hypertension, 2000, vol. 35, no. 2).

"Epidemiological data suggest that if we could lower the average systolic blood pressure among Americans by 5 mm Hg, we'd see a 14 percent drop in deaths from stroke, a 9 percent drop in heart disease deaths, and a 7 percent drop in overall mortality," says Paul Whelton, MD, senior vice president for health sciences at Tulane University Health Sciences Center and co-chair of the NHBPEP group that developed the latest recommendations. "A reduction as small as 2 mm Hg in the average American's systolic blood pressure could save more than 70,000 lives per year."

Other ways to prevent high blood pressure include eating adequate amounts of potassium—at least 3,500 mg daily—and limiting daily alcohol consumption to no more than 1 ounce of ethanol if you're a man (that translates into two 12-ounce beers, two 5-ounce glasses of wine, or 2 ounces of 100-proof whiskey) and no more than half an ounce of ethanol if you're a woman. And of course, watch the amount of sodium in your diet (see "So Long, Salt" for alternative flavorings). However, limiting your daily intake of sodium to less than 2,400 mg isn't as simple as banning the salt shaker from the dinner table. As much as 75 percent of typical sodium intake comes from salt that is added to prepackaged foods during processing.

The recommendations also caution that fish oil and calcium salts—used by many to treat high blood pressure—have been shown to lower blood pressure only slightly. Herbal supplements have not been proven to target the disease, says the NHBPEP, warning that some supplements may adversely interact with medications.

—Kelli Rosen