Cuff ‘Em

This easy hack helps you monitor blood pressure at home

by JP Faber | Updated 07 Oct 2015 at 3:57 AM

When you stack up all the killers in our modern world — high blood pressure takes one of the top spots.

It leads to stroke, heart attacks, kidney failure, accelerated aging, and makes just about everything else worse — even wrinkles.

But what is blood pressure, and when is it considered too high? And what can you do about it?

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Blood pressure is the force exerted by blood, as it circulates, on the walls of your blood vessels and arteries. It’s measured with a blood pressure meter (technically a sphygmomanometer), a device that attaches to your arm with a wraparound cuff. When the cuff is filled with air, it shows two numbers. The top number, or systolic blood pressure, is the force exerted when your heart is pumping. The bottom number, or diastolic blood pressure, is the force exerted between heart beats.

Related: Under Pressure

A normal resting pressure of 120 over 80 (120/80) is considered healthy. According to the National Institutes of Health, high blood pressure is anything above that — 140/90 or above is considered unhealthy (although a new study out just last month said anything above 120 should be considered a precursor to hypertension).

Blood pressure tends to rise as we get older. Sixty-five percent of American 60 and older have high blood pressure.

Blood pressure tends to rise as we get older. Sixty-five percent of American 60 and older have high blood pressure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 3 American adults — about 70 million people — have high blood pressure, medically known as hypertension. The big problem is that many of them don't know it.

“Hypertension is what we call an asymptomatic disorder, because there are no symptoms until something happens,” Dr. William B. White, chief of hypertension and clinical pharmacology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, told LifeZette. “The (average) person can have high blood pressure for years and not know it.”

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The only way to tell if you have high blood pressure is to have it measured. White recommends adults 50 and older have their doctors take their blood pressure every year.

“That’s the way to detect it early,” he said.

Another way is to take your own blood pressure with a home device you can buy for between $40 and $55 at your local pharmacy. These are reasonably accurate if you follow the directions, and are especially important for discovering an early trend toward high blood pressure.

“Any self-management tracking is helpful,” White said. “Basically a person who is tracking their blood pressure with a self-monitoring device is going to have better control.”

Monitoring your blood pressure at home can also give you immediate feedback on what’s helping bring those numbers down, such as when you see a drop after jogging.

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Besides normal aging and, in a few cases, bad genes, high blood pressure is typically caused by excessive weight, lack of exercise, stress, too much salt, and too much alcohol. These are all lifestyle habits that can be changed.

The good news is that lowering your blood pressure can reverse the damage that hypertension causes your blood vessels, White said.

Eat more fruits and vegetables that are rich in potassium — bananas, avocados, spinach, and papaya — because they counteract sodium.

“But if you’ve had a stroke or heart attack, that is a done deal and you can’t change that — though you can have a major impact (on preventing) a second or recurring event,” he told LifeZette.

Your doctor can prescribe a variety of medications to reduce high blood pressure, and these may be immediately necessary if you have dangerously high blood pressure. But there are natural ways to lower your numbers by changing your lifestyle.

Diet is a good place to start. The main thing is to avoid sodium; don’t heavily salt your food. Also, try to eat out less frequently, since most restaurants also salt their dishes to amp up the flavor. The recommended sodium limit for people with hypertension is less than 1,500 milligrams a day — roughly 2/3 a teaspoon of salt.

Related: The Amazing Avocado

Next, eat more fruits and vegetables that are rich in potassium — bananas, avocados, spinach, and papaya — because they counteract sodium.

Then come foods that improve the elasticity of your blood vessels. The best are dark chocolate and blueberries.

Finally are foods that combat bad cholesterol, either by balancing it with good fat — avocados, cold water fish, nuts — or by helping prevent it from attaching to blood vessel walls — tomatoes. It takes a couple of weeks for these to impact your blood pressure, so be patient.

Exercise is another solution. The best is regular aerobic exercise, like jogging or bike riding. Just 20 or 30 minutes a day can bring down your systolic pressure by three to five points or more, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Related: How to Exercise at Work

Avoid alcohol or coffee in excess. Limit your drinks of either of those to one or two a day. And lose some weight. Being heavy puts extra pressure on your heart. Losing even 10 percent of your weight makes a huge difference.

Finally, relax. Stress is a major cause of high blood pressure, so find a way to de-stress. This can be done with meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or even taking walks in the woods. And while you’re at it, stop smoking, since that spikes your blood pressure. You should do that anyway.

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