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BLOOD PRESSURE > Blood pressure BASICS >

Blood Pressure: A Little High Is Too High

By Larry Keller

Even slightly elevated blood pressure puts you at risk for heart problems. Here's how to bring it down.

For years, many people with “high-normal” or “borderline” high blood pressure felt secure in knowing they hadn’t crossed the threshold into full-blown hypertension—until the recent study published in Stroke, a journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers found that slightly elevated blood pressure—a systolic blood pressure of 120–139 mmHg and/or a diastolic blood pressure of 80–89 mmHg, a reading called prehypertension—puts people in the danger zone for heart problems. In fact, researchers concluded that prehypertensive people are three times more likely to have a heart attack and nearly twice as likely to have heart disease than those who have normal blood pressure.

Suddenly about 59 million Americans learned that they, too, were at risk for heart attacks. “The basic issue is our lifestyle and our age,” says Daniel W. Jones, M.D., spokesman for the American Heart Association and dean of the School of Medicine at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. “As people age, their risk of hypertension increases.” Couple that with the national obesity problem, and it’s easy to see why nearly one of two adults has prehypertension or hypertension (blood pressure of 140/90 or higher), commonly known as high blood pressure.

Just as with hypertension, people with prehypertension can lower their blood pressure by cutting back on salt, losing excess weight, exercising, and drinking alcohol only in moderation. Another tried-and-true strategy involves the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan. The DASH study, conducted at four U.S. medical centers, randomly assigned 459 adults for eight weeks to one of three eating plans with the same number of calories. Participants experienced significant drops in blood pressure when they followed the diet plan low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods.

The plan doesn’t require buying expensive or exotic foods. “It’s a good, healthful, easy-to-follow eating plan,” Jones says. The American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute also endorse it. Click here for more details on the DASH eating plan.

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