Medically Reviewed by Dr. David Costa Navarro
What is that
High blood pressure is one of the most common diseases in industrialized countries where it is found in 20% of the adult population. The pressure that blood exerts in the arteries varies considerably between one person and another, in relation to age, physical constitution, emotional state. Normally two numbers are used to express the pressure value: one to indicate the “minimum” pressure (which corresponds to the pressure existing in the arteries when the heart relaxes after a contraction) and one to indicate the “maximum” pressure “(which instead expresses the value of the pressure existing in the arteries when the heart contracts). A person is said to be hypertensive (or has high blood pressure) when the minimum blood pressure, measured in the arm, at rest and on several occasions, constantly exceeds the value of 90 or that of the maximum value of 140. After 60 years slightly higher values are accepted as normal, precisely because there is a natural tendency to increase pressure with age. In most cases the cause of hypertension is not known, therefore it is not even possible to find a definitive cure. In some cases, however (about 5% of the total) it is possible to identify and remove the cause of hypertension (e.g. kidney, endocrine, vascular diseases, birth control pills and other drugs, such as nasal decongestants used inappropriately). In about half of these cases, the cause of hypertension can be permanently removed.
How it manifests itself
Hypertension is a dangerous disease because one often does not realize that one is hypertensive. About half of hypertensive people do not know they are and therefore it is necessary to measure blood pressure at least once a year to find out about possible states of hypertension. In some cases, an increase in pressure can cause some ailments, such as headache, dizziness, ringing in the ear, breathlessness, visual disturbances (flying flies) or nose bleeding. In these cases, a medical examination is necessary.
What are the risks
The damage that can result from high blood pressure is serious and consists of vascular diseases, damage to the heart (heart failure, heart attack), kidney (kidney failure), brain (stroke) and eyes (bleeding, retinitis, etc.) . The damage can appear several years after the onset of the disease and is favored by other risk factors such as diabetes, smoking habits, obesity and excessive blood cholesterol content. In pregnant women it is particularly important to check blood pressure regularly.
What should be done
The first form of treatment for hypertension consists of some changes in nutrition and lifestyle. In this regard, it is interesting to note that in some non-industrialized populations with very different life and food habits from ours (very low salt consumption, intense physical activity, etc.) hypertension is almost non-existent, and also blood pressure does not increase with ‘advancing age. In particular it is necessary:
- reduce the ingestion of salt; as totally tasteless foods are not appreciated, it is good to gradually reduce the amount of salt used in order to get used to the new flavor of the food; obviously, all foods rich in salt such as cured meats and, in general, preserved foods should be avoided; also avoid breadsticks, rusks, crackers, pizza, choose types of bread with low salt content (Tuscan or Apulian bread) see also Low sodium diet;
- reduce the amount of calories introduced, therefore eat less high energy foods such as sweets, fats and alcoholic drinks;
- replace animal fats, such as butter or lard, with vegetable oils that are less harmful to the body; avoid high cholesterol foods, such as cheese, eggs, pork;
- limit the amount of alcoholic drinks (no more than 1/2 liter of wine per day) and do not overdo it in coffee consumption;
- abolish smoking or, as a minimum, reduce it as much as possible because, as mentioned above, it increases the risks of hypertension and can promote sudden increases in pressure;
- it is good to limit, as far as possible, occasions of excessive tension or anxiety, looking for moments of psychophysical relaxation (e.g. carrying out a physical activity that does not require too intense efforts);
- a therapy with antihypertensive drugs must be prescribed by the doctor who will choose, on a case by case basis, the most suitable treatment; it is imperative that a person with high blood pressure understand the importance of regularly taking the medications that have been prescribed; in some cases undesirable effects may appear such as: tiredness, drowsiness, dry mouth, mood changes, irritating cough; then it will be good to report them to your doctor to receive more appropriate advice.
It is important that a hypertensive person never stop taking drugs on his or her own initiative, because sudden and dangerous increases in pressure may occur. Therefore, make sure that you always have a sufficient supply of medicines, especially when leaving for holidays or on a weekend, when the pharmacy may be closed.