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Take the pressure down

High blood pressure affects more than half of Australians over the age of 55. Left unchecked it can be a danger, but fortunately keeping yours under control is a simple task.

First things first: if you've been told you have high blood pressure by your doctor, there's no need to worry. The most common cardiovascular issue in the world, a high blood pressure diagnosis is almost a rite of passage for those enjoying the retiree life. But while high blood pressure is a symptom-free condition, when left to its own devices it can lead to an elevated risk of heart attack, stroke, angina, diabetes and even kidney disease and vision impairment. Thankfully, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to make some basic changes to keep your blood pressure on the straight and narrow.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when a weakness in the muscles of your heart causes your blood to pump more slowly than normal. In order to keep your blood moving at the required pace, your blood vessels narrow, leading to an elevated level of pressure in your circulatory system. It's an excellent protective mechanism, but when allowed to operate for too long it can cause a permanent hardening in your arteries, as well as in the heart muscle itself. This in turn leads to plaque and cholesterol build-ups that make your arteries narrower still, creating a feedback loop that can create serious cardiovascular consequences down the line.


What to look for

When your doctor checks your blood pressure, you'll see two numbers, one on top of the other. The top number is known as the systolic, and measures your blood pressure at the moment your heart clenches, pumping newly oxygenated blood through your body. The bottom number is your diastolic, which is a measure of your blood pressure in the space between heartbeats.

An ideal or healthy adult blood pressure is anything under 120/80, while doctors start taking an interest when the numbers rise above 140/90. A single high reading isn't usually cause for concern – your doctor will likely bring you back for a number of follow-up appointments where they can check how your blood pressure varies during different activities.

There's no simple answer as to what causes high blood pressure, although there's a well-known hereditary component; if your parents or siblings have struggled with hypertension, then it's definitely worth having your blood pressure checked next time you see your GP. But more significant than simple genetics are lifestyle factors: people who eat unhealthy, high salt diets, who are overweight, don't exercise and who drink or smoke to excess are more likely to develop hypertension. The other major risk factor is, unfortunately, age. People over 55 are simply more likely to have high blood pressure due to general wear and tear on their hearts.


What you can do

Fortunately, hypertension is one of our most well-understood and easily managed ailments. The first thing your doctor will likely recommend is a suite of lifestyle changes. If you're smoking, try to stop. If you're drinking, cut back to the daily recommended amount. Consume less meat and salt-rich, processed food and refocus your diet around fresh fruit and vegetables. Begin regular aerobic exercise. This doesn't have to be strenuous – even 30 minutes of walking a day is enough to reap the benefits. Basically, it's the sort of advice most doctors will offer, even if your blood pressure would be the envy of a 20-year-old.

However, if your hypertension persists then you may be prescribed medication to either thin your blood or widen your arteries. But working out which medication, or which combination of medications, will work for you is a delicate process. It could take weeks or months and require an open dialogue with your doctor about side effects. But rest assured, patience is a virtue: when it comes to high blood pressure, even a small change now can have life-saving ramifications down the line.