In December of 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed the month of February as American Heart Month. In his remarks, he encouraged Americans “to give heed to the nationwide problem of the heart and blood-vessel diseases, and to support the programs required to bring about its solution.”
Much has changed since Johnson’s stark call-to-action heightened national awareness and brought about real changes in the fight against heart disease, but much has also stayed the same. Today—55 years after the first American Heart Month was recognized—one in every seven deaths in the US is attributable to heart disease.
And yet, while trends across populations can clearly be discouraging, nothing will ever change the power individuals have to improve their own lives. This February represents the perfect time to make a personal commitment to making healthy changes. It is also the perfect time to help aging loved ones create their own personal goals so they too can reap the reward of positive health benefits.
One of the most powerful measurements of heart health is blood pressure. Blood pressure is literally the force of blood pushing against the artery walls. Always presented as a fraction, blood pressure compares two distinct aspects of blood flow, which, when analyzed separately or in relation, give doctors a reliable sense of heart health.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure (HBP), is the most common chronic condition among older adults. Approximately 108 million American adults have high blood pressure (about 45 percent), yet only about one in four have their condition under control. Because it is so infrequently accompanied by symptoms, high blood pressure is often referred to as the “silent killer.” And even when HBP is not directly causing death, it is always causing harm because it damages blood vessels and significantly increases the risk of serious health conditions.
Before any treatment for HPB can be recommended or even discussed, it is important to first determine what a person’s blood pressure actually is. For reasons that are not obvious, this can often be challenging. Older adults are more vulnerable to “white coat effect” (increased stress in the presence of doctors) than other segments of the population. As a result, blood pressure readings at a physician’s office may be less reliable for older adults than those taken in the comfort of one’s home. Another factor of uncertainty is that large swings in blood pressure readings are common and normal.
With so much ambiguity surrounding blood pressure, it’s no wonder doctors highly recommend frequent, regular, and routine readings (i.e. morning/noon/night) to arrive at an overall reading that best reflects a baseline reality. The easiest way to do this is to purchase a reliable, home-based blood pressure monitor that can capture and save readings over time. Ask your doctors for brands or products they recommend. If you are helping to care for a loved one or older adult who does not live with you, be sure they understand how the unit works and how important it is for them to consistently use this important tool.
Treatment and Prevention
If hypertension is ultimately diagnosed, there are many ways to bring it back under control. While there is no overnight solution, high blood pressure can almost always be managed with simple yet effective lifestyle changes. Such changes are particularly beneficial to older adults because they will benefit their health in so many other ways.
- Prescription medications represent the most common method doctors use to treat hypertension, due to their effectiveness and reliability. If an older adult in your life has been prescribed medication to control blood pressure, be sure that they take it exactly as prescribed. Also ensure that prescription refills are ordered and picked up ahead of time to reduce chances for dangerous dips in medication levels.
- Maintaining a healthy weight is good advice for anyone, but it’s particularly helpful to older adults. Even if the “ideal weight” is a stretch goal for you or your loved one, losing just 10 pounds can have a profound impact on one’s blood pressure. Weight loss may even allow patients to reduce reliance on medication.
- Eating heart-healthy foods is an extremely effective way to lower blood pressure. By developing an appreciation for whole foods (unprocessed, unrefined foods), reducing fat intake, and eating more fruits and vegetables, patients not only can lower their blood pressure, they can elevate their overall sense of wellbeing.
- Using less salt in meal preparation and at the table is a potent and time-tested way to control high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends staying below 1500 mg of sodium per day.
- Regular exercise is a great all-around way to improve one’s life, but it is particularly important for lowering blood pressure. Aim for moderate activity—at least 2.5 hours per week—and remember that walking is an excellent form of exercise that can be done outside in nature, or inside on a treadmill or at a mall.
- By quitting smoking your loved one will be healthier, and they will dramatically lower their blood pressure. When someone smokes, the nicotine immediately increases the heart rate and raises blood pressure.
- Drinking less alcohol improves health and decreases blood pressure. Men should limit drinks to two per day, and women one drink per day.
- Managing stress is key to reducing one’s blood pressure. Many people may benefit from meditation and relaxation exercises, but others might prefer to relax with exercise or by immersing themselves in their favorite hobbies, like gardening, painting, or working on crossword puzzles.
The American Heart Association reminds us that American Heart Month “is a great way to remind Americans to focus on their hearts and encourage them to get their families, friends, and communities involved.” An excellent way to act on a new health commitment is to contact AgeWell Cincinnati. The experts at AgeWell Cincinnati regularly guide clients to resources linking to over 60 services, all of which can be accessed through one number: 513-766-3333