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Learn how to take control of your high blood pressure

May 23, 2016

Do doctors follow their own advice that they offer to patients visiting their office? Dr. Quinn Pack does.

He’s a preventive cardiologist in the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Medical Center. He wants to stay healthy for his family, as well as his patients.

Why is it important to control your blood pressure?

One of every three Americans has high blood pressure, also referred to as hypertension.

“High blood pressure is one of the six big ones to control,” Dr. Pack said, referring to the risk factors for heart disease that he often cites with patients, both men and women.

But it’s not just a heart attack or heart failure that you need to worry about.

“We often refer to high blood pressure as the silent killer because symptoms don’t usually appear until it’s too late, when undiagnosed blood pressure begins to result in complications,” he said.

Common complications and their signs and symptoms include:

  • Aneurysms
  • Kidney disease
  • Cognitive changes
  • Eye damage
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Stroke

“Because of the reality that you might have high blood pressure and not know it, it is so important to have your blood pressure checked regularly at your health care provider’s office,” said Dr. Pack.

He noted some pharmacies and retail stores also offer blood pressure checks, and that there are also home monitors which can be purchased.

What is "good" blood pressure?

May is National High Blood Pressure Education Month, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends “powering down” your blood pressure. And less is better.

A blood pressure reading of 110/70 is ideal, less than 120/80 is normal, and a reading greater than 140/90 is high. If your blood pressure is between these two, more monitoring is reasonable to identify if changes occur and when to initiate therapy. This category is often referred to as pre-hypertension. People with blood pressure in that range are more likely to progress to full-blown high blood pressure if they don’t do something about it before then.

Who can have high blood pressure?

Anyone can develop high blood pressure.

For some, it is hereditary. For others, the likelihood of developing high blood pressure increases as they grow older, especially if they are overweight, obese or have diabetes. Some people get high blood pressure as a result of a stressful situation or the side effect of a medication.

How can you lower your blood pressure?

You can help power down your blood pressure by making several lifestyle changes such as:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Eating a healthy diet low in sodium
  • Engaging in moderate physical exercise for about 30 minutes daily
  • Stopping smoking
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Reduce stress

Medications can also be prescribed to lower your blood pressure.

“Exercise is a great way to reduce stress. So, with the warmer spring weather upon us, consider lacing up your sneakers and going for a walk,” Dr. Pack said.

One way he keeps active between his busy schedule of seeing patients is with a treadmill desk in his personal office, where he can walk while working at his computer or talking on the phone.

“Sometimes patients will ask me, ‘What does smoking have to do with stress?’ As it turns out, while many smokers use cigarettes to cope with stress, recent studies have found that the nicotine addiction is actually the cause of much of the stress response, and that quitting smoking actually reduces stress substantially,” he added.

Of special note, high blood pressure is more common among blacks than whites in the United States. About 44% of black women have high blood pressure. Mexican-Americans have the lowest level of hypertension compared to non-Hispanic whites and blacks.

Find help at Baystate

Robert Collins of West Springfield knows the value of exercise.

Twelve years ago, he began complaining of shortness of breath, and he felt tired and weak. After seeing his doctor, Collins ended up on the doorsteps of Baystate Medical Center, where a stent was inserted to open a blocked artery to his heart.

“I’ve been in cardiac rehab ever since.….participating in the hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation & Wellness Program, where I work out several days a week. In addition to helping with my heart health, it’s become over the years somewhat of a social club for me, too,” Collins said.

Controlling Sodium intake

Lately, Collins, who is monitored while he works out, has noticed a rise in his blood pressure and has been taking medication to treat it along with his ongoing exercise.

The culprit?

“I admit to being overweight. But I just love food, and the salt shaker,” he said.

As for keeping your sodium in check and eating a healthy diet, Allison Clark, RD, a clinical dietitian at Baystate, recommends consuming no more than 2,000 mg of sodium per day, or less if directed by your doctor.

According to the CDC, processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods result in 75% of the salt intake by Americans. Salt added when cooking at home and at the table only contribute to about 11% of intake.

“You want to be sure to always look at food labels. When you do, you will be shocked to learn how many foods have salt that is not readily tasted when eating them – such as breads, baked goods and condiments like ketchup,” Clark said.

She recommends opting for low sodium or “no added salt” products and healthy fruits and vegetables, which are very low in sodium, as well as calories, and are rich in nutrients that have a somewhat counteracting effect on a high salt-diet.

Other recommendations include using salt-free seasoning, such as Mrs. Dash spice products, and lemon juice or vinegar for flavor.

“A useful tool to know if a food is high in sodium is to check the ratio of sodium to calories. If there is more sodium (measured in mg) than calories, it is a high sodium food,” Clark said.

Find more information on heart disease and stroke and their association with high blood pressure.