High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects millions of people in the UK, but many are unaware that they suffer from the condition. We explain how to get tested, what your results mean and how to prevent long-lasting damage to your health.
The British Heart Foundation estimates that up to five million people in the UK have undiagnosed hypertension, with the majority being in their fifties.
This serious condition can increase your risk of a heart attack, stroke and dementia so it’s important to keep an eye on your levels. Luckily, doing so is relatively straightforward and can be helped by making small lifestyle changes, as we explain…
How do I know if I have high blood pressure?
Symptoms can be difficult to spot, which is why it is often referred to as the ‘silent killer’. It’s been known to cause headaches, shortness of breath and dizziness, but the only way to know if you have hypertension is to get tested.
How do I get checked?
Your GP or pharmacist can check your blood pressure using a non-invasive technique. Vitality members can get a blood pressure measurement as part of their annual Vitality Healthcheck, and all members aged 16 and over are eligible for a free five-minute test on-the-spot at any LloydsPharmacy branch. You can also buy a blood pressure monitor to use at home, though be sure to choose a reliable one.
What does the test involve?
Your practitioner will wrap an inflatable cuff around your upper arm. The cuff is attached to a digital measuring device that uses your pulse to calculate your blood pressure at two points: the highest level and the lowest level.
The high reading is known as your systolic blood pressure, which is when the heart contracts in order to pump blood through the arteries. The low reading is known as your diastolic blood pressure, which occurs when the heart relaxes and fills with blood ready for the next pump.
What does my reading tell me?
It indicates the health of your cardiovascular system: the force at which your heart pushes blood around your body. The higher the reading, the harder your heart is working. Like all muscles, if it works too hard it can become damaged and lead to serious medical consequences.
What is a normal reading?
A reading of 120/80mmHg is considered a normal reading. Anything over 140/90mmHg is high and your doctor will likely want to administer additional tests to find out why.
What causes hypertension?
Genetics is also a key factor. High blood pressure can run in the family and you’re particularly at risk if a male or female family member under the age of 55 and 65, respectively, has had a heart attack. African Caribbean people are also more likely to be affected by high blood pressure.
What could cause a spike in my blood pressure?
Having a full bladder; sitting with your legs crossed; drinking caffeine-rich beverages and eating exceptionally salty or sugary foods such as liquorice (which contains glycryrrhizin, a compound that is up to 50 times sweeter than sugar and can affect your body’s ability to regulate fluid), before being tested can all cause a temporary spike in your blood pressure.
Unsurprisingly, having sex can also raise your blood pressure, but only briefly and not to very high levels. Those who already suffer with high blood pressure needn’t worry. In fact, according to the NHS, sex and intimacy can be good for your heart.
One in 10 people suffer from ‘white coat hypertension’ – this is when the anxiety of being in a clinical environment causes a spike in your levels. You may be tested several times during your appointment to ensure there are no anomalies and you may have to wear a small device on your arm that tests your blood pressure every 20 minutes for 24 hours.
How can I lower my levels?
Limiting your alcohol intake and exercising regularly can all contribute to a healthier blood pressure level. Blood pressure-lowering foods include wholegrain rice, bread and pasta and fruit and vegetables. You should also reduce the amount of saturated fat you consume – such as butter, fatty red meat and processed cakes – to improve overall heart health.
Is low blood pressure just as dangerous?
On the whole, low blood pressure (>90/60mmHg) does not have the same health implications as high blood pressure. Instead, it may cause dizziness, fatigue or nausea. Keep an eye on any symptoms and if you have concerns seek guidance from your GP. The important thing is to get it checked regularly.
Did you know that a blood pressure check is included in all of Vitality’s health check and screenings? Plus, you can benefit from 50% off screenings with partners such as Bluecrest, Nuffield Health and BMI.