Debunked! 9 Myths About High Blood Pressure

by Jennifer Rainey Marquez Health Writer

It may be one of the most common conditions in the country, but myths about high blood pressure just won’t go away. Even its nickname, “the silent killer,” is a misnomer, says John Bisognano, M.D., Ph.D., director of outpatient services in the division of cardiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. “Studies show that when people get their blood pressure under control, they do feel the difference,” he says. “They don’t get as short of breath and they don’t have so much pounding in their chest.” Learn more about telling fact from fiction when it comes to high blood pressure.

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Myth: It’s an Old Person’s Disease

Think you’re too young for hypertension (a.k.a. high blood pressure)? It’s true that age is a significant risk factor—nearly half of all people over 50 have high blood pressure and the older you get, the more likely you are to develop it, says Dr. Bisognano. Yet the condition is not confined to seniors. Hypertension is also on the rise in younger adults and affects one in eight people between the ages of 20 and 40.

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Myth: It’s All About the Salt Shaker

When it comes to managing blood pressure through diet, “there has been too much emphasis on salt to the exclusion of everything else,” says Jay Pandit, M.D., a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Research Institute in Geneva, IL. “Sodium plays a role in reducing blood pressure, but the focus should be on healthy eating.” That means favoring fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, while cutting out processed and fast foods that often contain much more sodium than you would ever shake onto your plate.

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Myth: Exercising With High Blood Pressure Is Dangerous

Whoever came up with that one must have hated the gym. Not only is exercise not dangerous for people with high blood pressure, it can actually help get your numbers under control. “People get worried if their blood pressure spikes during exercise,” says Dr. Pandit. “They think, am I going to give myself a heart attack?” Remember, it’s normal for blood pressure to rise while you’re working out, and even remain elevated for an hour or two afterward. But that doesn’t make you exempt from regular exercise.

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Myth: Lifestyle Changes Are the Only Real Cure

The truth is, most people will require medication to effectively treat high blood pressure. “These drugs came out because lifestyle changes aren’t always enough,” says Dr. Bisognano. Not only are new healthy habits hard to maintain, “even if you started running marathons and went back to your high school weight, your blood pressure could still be less than perfect. It’s partially in your genes, and it’s partially related to age.”

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Myth: The Right Meds Are All You Need

Here’s the flipside: While taking medication can be an important part of managing your condition, your prescription is not your carte blanche to park it on the couch with a pint of ice cream in hand. Making smart lifestyle choices every day—like saying yes to more movement, more fruits, and more veggies—can improve the effectiveness of your prescriptions or eventually help you drop down to a lower dose, or even no dose.

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Myth: A High Reading Indicates Stroke

It’s true, a higher than normal blood pressure reading is one (we repeat, one) sign of a possible stroke or heart attack. But a temporary surge in blood pressure is not always cause for panic. “If your numbers are over 180/90, especially if you’ve also got headaches or vision changes, then that’s absolutely emergency room territory,” says Dr. Pandit. “But if you just watched an exciting movie and your blood pressure is elevated, that’s not going to lead to a stroke.” Best bet: Check it again in a few hours or confirmation.

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Myth: Drink More Wine

There’s nothing wrong with a little vino but think before you refill that glass. Despite what you may have heard, wine is not some kind of cardiac miracle pill (if only!). In fact, too much alcohol can significantly raise your blood pressure. Relax and enjoy but know that the American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake to no more than one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.

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Myth: Once a Year Is Enough

Getting your blood pressure checked at your annual exam is good—but it’s just a start. Keeping tabs at home can lead to earlier detection of hypertension, says Dr. Pandit. The American Heart Association recently released guidelines for performing DIY checks, but a perfect technique matters less than being consistent about checking, says Dr. Pandit. “You don’t have to obsess over doing it exactly right, as long as you do it in the same arm, at the same time of day, in the same way,” he says.

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Myth: The Lower, The Better

Blood pressure is kind of like Goldilocks’ porridge—you don’t want it to be too high or too low, but just right. “If you’ve been taking medication for high blood pressure and you’ve also changed your lifestyle, you may not need the same dose anymore,” says Dr. Pandit. Low readings can lead to dizziness and feeling lightheaded, so monitor your numbers carefully. If they’re low, don’t stop taking medication on your own—that can cause your numbers to swing back too high the other way. Talk with your doc to come up with a plan.

Jennifer Rainey Marquez
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Rainey Marquez

Jennifer Rainey Marquez is a longtime health and science writer based in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Parade, and many other outlets. You can follow her at @jenrrain.