10 Heart Health Myths and Factsby Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Professional
Much of what you think you know about high blood pressure, or hypertension, might be based on outdated information. You may think, for example, that being diagnosed with prehypertension isn’t a big deal, especially if you’re in your 20s or 30s. You may feel fine. But we’re now learning that even slightly elevated blood pressure over a prolonged time can have serious consequences.
Felicia Stoler, DCN (doctorate in clinical nutrition) says science is evolving so quickly that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with what we should and shouldn’t be doing to manage our health. Research on blood pressure is no exception. Here are 10 common myths Stoler wants to debunk.
Myth #1: Blood pressure in the 120/80 range is ideal
Fact: “Over the years, health experts have dropped the acceptable limits with respect to cholesterol and blood sugar, and the same is now happening with blood pressure. Experts are re-thinking what’s healthy. Too many people who have blood pressure in the 120/80 range are developing heart disease. What’s more, we’re discovering that young people are at greater risk for developing heart disease later in life than we once thought.
“The CARDIA study, conducted by researchers at multiple locations including Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, University of Minnesota and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, followed nearly 2,500 healthy men and women from early adulthood (ages 18 to 30), for 25 years. The results revealed that those whose blood pressure was in the prehypertension range -- between 120/80 and 139/89 -- while they were still under 30 were more likely to have signs of heart disease when they reached middle age. Specifically, they were at higher risk of developing problems with their heart’s left ventricle.
“Results of the SPRINT study were presented at the American Heart Association annual meeting. The study, which began in the fall of 2009, was sponsored by the NHLBI, with co-sponsorship by the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Institute on Aging. In that study, about 9,300 participants were seen regularly for four to eight years by blood pressure management experts. Researchers determined that maintaining blood pressure below the commonly recommended systolic target of 120 significantly reduced rates of cardiovascular disease and lowered the risk of death among adults age 50 and older diagnosed with high blood pressure. As a result of this study, the American Heart Association now suggests that blood pressure of 120/80 is the new lower limit for hypertension.”
Myth #2: You’ll notice symptoms if you have elevated blood pressure
Fact: “That’s the challenge with high blood pressure as well as high cholesterol: there may not be any noticeable warning signs, or they may seem so insignificant that you just ignore them. That’s why high blood pressure is often called 'the silent killer.' For example, some people with high blood pressure may get headaches but attribute them to stress. Left unmanaged, high blood pressure can affect your overall health. That’s why even eye doctors and dentists will check your blood pressure during your appointments.”
Myth #3: Following the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines is sufficient for heart-healthy nutrition
Fact: “The Dietary Guidelines aren’t disease-specific. They are general recommendations. Yes, you should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Their anti-inflammatory properties are excellent for heart health. Grapes, in particular, have long been recognized for their heart-health benefits. But you’d have to eat two pounds of grapes a day to get enough of the bioactives to make a difference. Consider taking a premium, clinically studied grape seed extract, such as MegaNatural-BP, once a day to help maintain healthy blood pressure. It helps to relax the arteries."
Myth #4: Exercise is too risky if you have heart disease
Fact: Exercise is an important way to help reduce your resting, and exercising, heart rate and blood pressure. You don’t need to run marathons for it to be effective. You don’t even need to stress about carving out 30 to 60 minutes at a time to work out. Your total physical activity can add up throughout the day. That’s why those physical activity trackers are so useful. Try the Seven Minute Scientific Workout app for a quick workout. Or take a five-minute walk every hour when you’re at work. In an eight-hour day, you will accumulate 40 minutes of activity. Another thing you can do is exercise with your kids. Instead of sitting on the park bench talking with other parents, get on the swing set and pump your legs.”
Myth #5: People don’t really need to worry about high blood pressure until after they reach middle age
Fact: “Blood pressure should be monitored your entire life. Know your numbers and if those results are age-appropriate. Even children can have elevated blood pressure, which may be due to genetics, obesity or life habits. This needs to be followed from an early age.
“Women who take birth control, regardless of the reason, are at increased risk for stroke. That’s why making sure you know your blood pressure is very important. But it’s true, especially for women, that new risks emerge in their 40s and 50s. As their estrogen levels taper off, they may see a rise in their blood pressure.”
Myth #6: Only men may experience a link between high blood pressure and libido
Fact: “Just as men who have high blood pressure may suffer from erectile dysfunction, some physicians have noted that sexual performance issues in women may be an early warning sign of high blood pressure. Women who notice a lower libido or who have less interest in sex should talk with their physicians and get their blood pressure checked.”
Myth #7: Blood pressure readings taken at the doctor’s office are usually accurate
Fact: “Most of time, your blood pressure is taken as soon as you walk into the room. What they don’t take into account are all the stressors. You may have hurried to get to the appointment; your doctor isn’t running on time; you just stepped on the scale; you just sat down. The best time to have your blood pressure taken is at the end of the doctor’s appointment, after you’ve been sitting and talking -- not after you have been moving, standing, sitting and perhaps feeling hurried. You should be rested for five to 10 minutes to get an accurate reading."
Myth #8: Stroke is the primary concern associated with high blood pressure
Fact: “Yes, stroke is a serious concern when you have elevated blood pressure. But what most people don’t realize is that high blood pressure is the second leading cause of kidney failure. Healthy kidneys produce a hormone that helps the body regulate blood pressure. Your kidneys contain tiny blood vessels that are easily damaged by uncontrolled high blood pressure. As high blood pressure damages kidneys, this starts a negative spiral. Over time, the kidneys can fail. Because this takes several years to happen, it may be prevented with proper blood pressure monitoring and management.”
Myth #9: Weight has little to do with blood pressure
Fact: “Maintaining a normal body weight is very important. If you’re overweight, dropping even as little as 10 percent of what you need to lose will result in an improvement in your blood pressure. Where you carry that extra weight also matters. It’s well known that excess abdominal fat increases heart disease risk.”
Myth #10: There’s no connection between sleep and high blood pressure
Fact: “Chronic insomnia increases your risk for hypertension. Getting seven to eight hours of quality sleep is important. If you’re not sleeping well, talk with your doctor.”
Take control of your heart health
Stoler encourages everyone, especially young adults, to start building heart-healthy habits now. “Make -- and keep -- your doctor’s appointments,” she advises. “Take a close look at your lifestyle and determine what changes need to be made. You don’t have to do a complete overhaul all at once. See what’s easiest to tackle. It may be switching from diet soda and coffee to water. Or taking a walk during your work breaks instead of chatting with co-workers while seated.”
Be proactive about your blood pressure rather than reactive. “If you are in your 20s to your 40s, you should already be doing all you can to maintain your good health. Along with a well-balanced diet and plenty of exercise, smart supplementation may help us avoid diseases to which most of us are prone,” Stoler says.