Hypertension does not always show physical symptoms, yet it causes serious, often irreversible, bodily harm and it can even kill you.
From a young age, we learn to take care of our belongings. Cars, homes and other things are checked and maintained. Yet, when it comes to our bodies, which also need regular checks, it does not happen often enough. One such check is blood pressure to identify hypertension. This deadly condition can show no physical symptoms, yet causes serious, often irreversible, bodily harm.
Almost half of South Africans live with this silent killer. Around the world, 10 million people die prematurely each year from hypertension and the World Health Organization estimates that 1.56 billion adults will live with the condition by 2025. Many South Africans will form part of this unfortunate statistic because we have a particularly high prevalence of hypertension often referred to as the ‘silent killer’. A 2016 South Africa Demographic and Health Survey showed an overwhelming 46% of women and 44% of men (aged 15 years and over) have hypertension – and it is further estimated that nearly half of South Africans with hypertension have never done a check and are unaware that they have it.
The call this World Hypertension Day, which is observed on 17 May, is to ‘know your numbers’. All it takes is a quick, non-invasive check with a nurse at a pharmacy or clinic, or at your GP. A band around your upper arm tightens slightly by being pumped full of air to give you two readings: the pressure in your blood vessels (arteries and veins) when your heart beats and the pressure when your heart rests. It is that simple to know and to protect your health.
What is hypertension and why is it dangerous?
Dr Deepak Patel, Clinical Specialist at Discovery Vitality, gives the simple explanation that hypertension is a condition in which your blood vessels are under persistently high pressure and your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body. This is very dangerous. It can lead to aneurysms (weak spots and bulging in your vessels) and strokes, heart attacks, heart enlargement, and heart failure. Patel says, “A healthy blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg. When your blood pressure is measured on three different days and all your readings are 140/90 mmHg or higher, it is likely that you have hypertension.” Worryingly, other health problems that come from constantly high blood pressure include kidney failure, blindness, and cognitive impairment.
Why you can have high blood pressure
While the exact causes of hypertension are not always known, there are many things that contribute. Age, a family history and underlying medical conditions are some. However, most causes relate to lifestyle choices. The biggest culprits that put our hearts and blood vessels under pressure are being overweight or obese, not doing enough physical activity, high stress levels, smoking, drinking too much alcohol and making unhealthy food choices, which include eating too much salt.
Based on these causes, the recently released Vitality ObeCity Index shows we are setting ourselves up for the risks that hypertension poses. Obesity in South Africa is increasing faster than the global average and as much as half of the population is now considered overweight or obese – with a crippling impact on the economy due to increased healthcare costs, loss in productivity, absenteeism from work and other factors.
The increase in obesity and related chronic conditions like hypertension is spurred on by our food choices – the average South African eats three or fewer portions of fruit and vegetables a day, instead of the recommended five, while we consume far too much sugar and salt. It’s recommended to keep your sugar intake to less than 12 teaspoons a day, while an astounding daily 24 teaspoons of sugar is part of the average South African’s diet. Similarly, high salt intake is a major contributor to high blood pressure, yet most people take in more than double the recommended intake of one teaspoon a day – not always aware of the high salt content of processed and fast foods.
Headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations and nose bleeds, could all be signs that your heart and blood vessels are under too much pressure. But, remember, there could also be no symptoms at all. Hypertension can be managed by adapting your lifestyle. When you do need to take medicine, never skip it and combine it with lifestyle recommendations that can relieve the pressure on your heart.
Keys for everyone to manage blood pressure
- Check what you eat: The best way to keep your salt levels within healthy limits (and to help manage your weight) is to choose whole foods over highly processed foods, to cook at home more, and to get into the habit of reading food labels to identify hidden salt and sugar. Include more plant-based foods such as vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and fruit, and limit notoriously salty foods such as bread, margarine, processed meats, canned soups, stock powders, condiments, crisps and crackers. Including unsweetened milk and plain yoghurt in your diet is also a good idea as calcium helps to regulate blood pressure.
- Drink only moderate amounts of alcohol: Alcohol increases blood pressure. Limit alcohol and never have more than one drink (women) or two drinks (men) a day.
- Get physical: Any physical activity that increases your heart and breathing rate will help to control blood pressure. Only 30 to 60 minutes at least three to five days each week will make a difference. Walking is exercise too – take short walks for five to 10 minutes each day, use the stairs instead of the lift or escalator.
- Don’t smoke and always manage stress: Smoking increases blood pressure and prolonged stress has negative health effects. Quit the habit and make time to relax.
“It’s important to know your health status,” says Dr Patel who support the message of World Hypertension Day to ‘Know your numbers’. “Even if you feel fine, have a general check-up once a year or visit a healthcare professional to track your key health numbers often. Prevention and early treatment of hypertension will help keep your heart healthier.”