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Controlling high blood pressure to reduce stroke risk

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center

High blood pressure is extremely common; in fact, almost one out of every two adults suffers from it. Symptoms are rare, so patients need to take a proactive approach to make sure they minimize the risk of stroke associated with high blood pressure.

Blood pressure is measured by the pressure within the vascular system when the heart is contracting or relaxing. All the organs receive blood from the heart and “when the [blood] pressure is elevated, it’s going to cause extra strain on the heart and the kidneys …and the brain,” said Dr. Richard T. Benson, associate medical director at MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Comprehensive Stroke Center.

A stroke can occur when the high blood pressure affects the brain’s arteries. Additionally, the brain’s tissue is very sensitive to changes in pressure, Dr. Benson added. This decreased flow of blood to the brain, called an ischemic stroke, accounts for approximately 87 percent of strokes.

High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) is widespread and there are some larger societal trends that may be contributing to the problem, Dr. Benson said. One leading cause for the prevalence of high blood pressure is the obesity epidemic, he said, adding that changes to that trend start with America’s young people.

“We really have to change that trend of getting young people to exercise, to eat well and get a proper diet and become physically active. And so unfortunately I think that we are seeing more people, more younger ages of people, with hypertension and a major factor for that is obesity. So if we can get people active, we can combat that some,” he said.

Also, people’s food habits may be leading them down a dangerous path as more and more people rely on sodium-heavy, fast-food meals.

“Most of those foods are going to be high in sodium and not as nutritious and so that also sets us up in this busy society of people eating high-sodium foods and leading to obesity as well as high sodium intake.”

So how can you tell if you suffer from high blood pressure? Unfortunately symptoms may not send you to the doctor’s office.

“The most common symptom is no symptom,” Dr. Benson said, adding that symptoms can happen over time and sometimes people don’t know they have high blood pressure until they have their first stroke. Some people may experience symptoms such as blurred vision, headaches and nosebleeds.

Since symptoms are rare, it’s important that patients take the time to check their blood pressure regularly at home and doctors make a point to check patients’ blood pressure at check-ups, he said.

For patients who think they are experiencing a stroke due to high blood pressure, Dr. Benson recommends immediately heading to the hospital. Time is brain, he said.

“The longer you wait to come to the hospital, the longer you prevent getting treatment that could restore the blood flow to your brain and the more nerve cells that die,” he said.

Some lifestyle changes could help reduce patients’ risk for hypertension and, in return, minimize their risk of a stroke.

Adding exercise can help maintain a blood pressure. A recent study found that people who exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day, three times a week, have a lower rate of stroke compared to those that don’t exercise at all.

A healthy diet can be helpful, too – especially a heart-healthy option such as the Mediterranean Diet. It includes more fruits and vegetables, olive oil and fish instead of processed foods and red meats.

Stress can lead to high blood pressure, and while it’s unrealistic to think stress can be eliminated from people’s lives, they may need to rethink how they respond to it. Good sleep habits, exercise, meditation and prayer as well as surrounding yourself with good a social support network can all minimize stress.

If lifestyle changes can’t put blood pressure in a healthy range, doctors may prescribe medications to help. The doctor may recommend an ace inhibitor, which allows your blood vessels to relax and widen, making it easier for blood to flow through. Another option is a diuretic, which removes excess salt and water from the body. A beta blocker is another option; it helps your heart beat more slowly and with less force.

The doctors at MedStar Washington Hospital Center are skilled and work with teams to develop comprehensive care for their patients.

“When you come here, you have the best experts in all types of care at your fingertips,” Dr. Benson said. “We can help get your risk factors under control.”

To read more about hypertension and recommendations from Dr. Benson in his podcast, click here.