With no respect for age, high blood pressure—or hypertension—snuck up on Travis Michl, a Newton, Ill., farmer, just as it has on many other people. Although Michl is only 28 years old, his blood pressure is about 170/120.
The top number (systolic) is the pressure when the heart is beating. The bottom number (diastolic) is the pressure when the heart is resting between beats. A normal reading is a systolic below 120 and a diastolic below 80.
High blood pressure puts people at major risk for heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. In 2002, high blood pressure was a primary or contributing cause of death for 277,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Except for a few cases involving abnormalities of the kidneys, aorta or arteries, the cause of high blood pressure is unknown. It is most common in people of middle age and older. There are no symptoms; the only way to know whether you have hypertension is to have your blood pressure checked.
"My doctor said stress was a factor, along with being a little overweight,” Michl says.
Experts disagree on whether stress causes high blood pressure, but they agree it's a risk factor. The American Heart Association (AHA) says stress increases the chances of developing the condition, and managing stress may help correct the problem.
"I've learned to recognize when I'm getting tensed up—usually when something breaks,” Michl says. "I take a deep breath and remind myself that it's not the end of the world.”
Lifestyle changes work. Michl also is learning to watch what he eats, and he plans to start exercising when field work slows down. That can pay off, testifies Janis Smith, this writer's wife, who developed high blood pressure later in life. Her doctor prescribed medication to control the condition.
Hoping to avoid taking pills for the rest of her life, Smith joined Weight Watchers. She started walking from three to 10 miles per day. In four years, she dropped 30 lb., her blood pressure returned to normal and she discontinued her medication. "But if I stop eating healthy or don't walk, my blood pressure goes back up,” she says.
"It was very hard to give up my favorite foods, especially ice cream,” Smith says. "Low-fat ice cream is not the same; I still cheat occasionally. But I've switched from three-egg omelets to one scrambled egg.” Mastering portion control wasn't easy, but Smith's body adjusted. "Although food still smells just as tempting, I find I no longer can consume as much,” she says.
Shedding excess pounds and taking up exercise are worth the effort. According to AHA, a 40-year-old with hypertension is more than three times as likely to die from a heart attack, almost four times as likely to die from a stroke and about three times as likely to develop heart failure compared with someone with normal blood pressure.
"If I can change my lifestyle, others can, too,” Smith says.