Silent Killer Making Noise Says LSU AgCenter Nutritionist

Elizabeth S. Reames  |  4/19/2005 10:28:35 PM

News Release Distributed May 2004

Hypertension or high blood pressure is often called the silent killer, because it may cause no symptoms. "The condition may not be so silent after all," says LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames, citing new research.

Warning signs may include weakness, fatigue, dizziness, sleep disturbance, headache and shortness of breath during exertion.

"Your risk of high blood pressure is increased if one or both of your parents has high blood pressure," Reames says, adding, "Blacks are about twice as likely to have high blood pressure than whites. Being overweight or obese also increases your risk of hypertension."

Reames explains that high blood pressure makes your heart work harder than it should to pump blood. If this pressure isn’t controlled, your heart enlarges, and your arteries become scarred, hardened and less elastic. Your overworked heart and stiff arteries may not be able to pump blood properly, leading to congestive heart failure (backup of fluid into the lungs).

High blood pressure also can damage the inner linings of arteries, leading to a buildup of fatty deposits and other substances called plaque. This condition is called atherosclerosis and is a major cause of heart attack and stroke. This damage to arteries also may cause kidney disease, vision loss and shrinkage of the brain, leading to memory loss and damage to thinking processes.

Reames says blood pressure is measured by two numbers and is usually shown with a slash between the numbers, such as 110/70. The usual way of reading the two numbers, however, is 110 over 70.

The higher number is called the systolic pressure. The systolic pressure is the highest pressure in your arteries when your heart contracts and exerts a strong force on the walls during a heartbeat.

The lower number is called the diastolic pressure. The diastolic pressure is the lowest pressure in your blood vessels when your heart relaxes between beats and fills with blood. Your blood pressure changes constantly, depending on how hard your heart is working. Blood pressure readings vary, depending on physical activity, emotions and other factors.

Reames says the Joint National Committee (JNC7) on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure issued new blood pressure guidelines in 2003. Normal blood pressure has a systolic rate of less than 120 and diastolic rate of less than 80. Prehypertension has a systolic rate of 120 to 139 and diastolic rate of 80 to 89. Hypertension finds the systolic number at 140 or higher and the diastolic number at 90 or higher.

The nutritionist strongly recommends asking your doctor about your target blood pressure readings, because high blood pressure must be diagnosed and treated to avoid the many problems it causes.

Reames says to have your blood pressure checked each year by a health care provider to assure accuracy. A one-time high reading, unless it’s extremely high, doesn’t necessarily mean you have hypertension, she says.

"Treatment used to be recommended only if you had severe high blood pressure," Reames says, but notes, "Now, even mild hypertension is treated, because health risks increase with every point over normal your blood pressure climbs."

She says you don’t have to know what’s causing your hypertension to bring it under control. About half of all people with mild hypertension can control their condition by adopting these healthy habits:

• Lose weight if you’re overweight. Dropping excess pounds is the most effective non-medication method of lowering blood pressure. Losing as few as 10 pounds may lead to a meaningful drop in your blood pressure.

• Exercise. Brisk walking for 30-45 minutes several times a week can bring your blood pressure down a few points. Vigorous exercise, such as riding a stationary bike for 40 minutes, may lower it by more than 10 points. Check with your doctor about the type of physical activity best for you.

• Limit alcohol. Alcohol raises your blood pressure even if you don’t have hypertension and reduces your heart’s pumping ability.

• Stop smoking.

• Eat a healthy diet. Follow the Food Guide Pyramid recommendations for healthy eating, including 2-4 servings of fruits, 3-5 servings of vegetables and 2-3 servings of low-fat dairy foods a day.

Key nutrients that may help lower blood pressure include potassium, magnesium and calcium. Potassium-rich foods include many fruits and vegetables. Especially high in potassium are bananas, cantaloupes, prunes and prune juice, grapefruit juice, raisins, honeydew melons and potatoes. Foods with magnesium include whole grains, leafy green vegetables, and some seafood and lean meats. Low-fat dairy products are excellent sources of calcium.

Too much sodium, found in salt and many foods, may cause some people’s blood pressure to be high. Foods loaded with sodium include many canned foods, lunch meats and preserved meats, salted snack food and many convenience foods. Replace these foods with unsalted canned foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans cooked from scratch and unsalted snacks such as fresh-popped popcorn.

Reames says an eating plan called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), which is rich in low-fat dairy foods, fruits and vegetables, may help reduce the risk of high blood pressure. In a large study funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the DASH eating plan was shown to be most effective among plans tested. The low-fat eating plan includes 2-3 servings of low fat dairy foods and 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

For additional information about eating healthfully, contact the LSU AgCenter extension Family Consumer Sciences agent in your parish. Also, visit the Family and Consumer Sciences Web site at


On the Internet: LSU AgCenter:
Source: Beth Reames (225) 578-3329 or

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