Halt that hypertension

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HEALTH With every single heartbeat, life nurturing blood is pumped into your body. The pressure at which this blood flows through your system matters because it can have a great impact on your organs -- in particular, the kidneys, brain, heart and eyes. In extreme cases, it can even mean the difference between life and death. KAMALA THIAGARAJAN tells what you should know about regulating your blood pressure and keeping yourself in the peak of performance

It is the most basic of health check-ups and perhaps the first examination that your doctor does when you set foot into his office. There's a good reason why keeping your blood pressure under control is considered absolutely essential for optimal health.

The Number Crunch

A normal blood pressure reading would be 120/80. The higher value (120) represents the systolic blood pressure (SBP) or the pressure generated in the blood vessels during the contraction of the heart. The lower value (DBP) represents the pressure generated when the heart muscle relaxes. While both readings are important, according to the American Society of Hypertension, for people over the age of fifty, a higher SBP value (rather than a high DBP) is more likely to be a risk factor for heart disease.

If your blood pressure reading is in the range of 130-139/80-90, you are said to have pre-hypertension, a condition that doesn't require medication, but does require lifestyle intervention on your part to keep your BP in check. Stage 1 hypertension occurs when your reading is in the range of 140-159/90-99. Your doctor will prescribe medication, but it can be kept in check.

For those who suffer from chronic hypertension, the blood pressure reading would hover above 160/100 and would require immediate intervention and lifelong medication.

Protect your Organs

Hypertension is a silent killer. If it is severe and unchecked for many years, it can cause kidney damage, left ventricular failure (thereby weakening your heart) and even cause swelling and bleeding in the optic disc (the area where the optic nerve connects the eye to the brain), thereby severely impairing your vision and possibly affecting the blood supply to your brain, bringing on a stroke. You may not even know you have the condition unless you approach your doctor for other health related issues and by then, lifelong medication may be required to protect vital organs. Of all the ways hypertension can affect your health, experts agree that its impact on the kidneys is most significant because it strikes rapidly and irreversibly.

"The kidneys are organs that are richly supplied with blood," says Dr S. Jaya Lakshmi, Associate Professor of Nephrology at Chengalpet Medical Hospital and Consultant Nephrologist at St Isabel's, Chennai. "Chronic hypertension can lead to irreversible renal damage, since the glomerulus (the filtering part of the kidneys) are severely affected by this condition. Even a sudden spike in blood pressure (for those with a family history and who suffer from constant borderline high pressure) can be very dangerous to kidney health."

Ways to Beat High BP

Keeping a constant vigilant eye, especially if you have a family history of the disease will certainly help. "Frequent BP check-ups, (at least once in three months) are a must for all," says Dr Jayalakshmi. "We recommend check-ups for children as well. Even if you don't have a family history of the disease, lifestyle factors such as severe and chronic stress can easily aggravate hypertension. Ensure that you visit a doctor rather than use gadgets at home to check the condition because these can be faulty," says Dr Jayalakshmi. Keeping an eye on your salt intake is also essential. "Excessive salt can cause your blood pressure to rise. For this reason, no more that 4 to 6 gms of salt a day is recommended. Keeping your salt intake down can be difficult since we live in an era of packaged foods, all of which have added sodium. Also, there is hidden salt in common foods such as cheese, chips, pickles, which for many people are a staple part of their diet. "The right kind of exercise can also help keep your blood pressure in check. Besides relieving stress and helping you relax, exercise can keep your weight under control, which is important since excessive weight can lead to hypertension.

Adopting the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan

Recent studies at four leading US universities show that hypertension can be significantly reduced in just two weeks when adopting the DASH eating plan. By increasing your intake of grains (and products made from whole grains) to 7 servings a day, fruits and vegetables to 4-5 servings, dairy products to 3 servings, 2-3 servings of fats and oils daily, while restricting sweet, nuts, seeds and dry beans to just 4-5 servings per week, one can effectively battle the chronic condition.

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