Regular blood-pressure checks can save your life

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, has been called the "silent killer." Without symptoms, it can severely damage arteries and organs and lead to heart attack and stroke.

Only in severe cases does hypertension carry warning signs - fatigue, confusion, changes in skin color - which is why healthy adults should have their blood pressure checked every one to two years. The Healthy Aging Partnership (HAP), a coalition of a coalition of 40 Puget Sound-area not-for-profit organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of older adults, recommends more frequent checkups for those with risk factors for heart or blood-vessel disease.

Risk factors include: high blood pressure in the past; smoking; being overweight; diabetes; age (45 and older for men, 55 and older for women); and a family history of coronary artery disease and/or early fatal heart attacks.

Blood-pressure tests measure the force of your blood against the walls of your arteries. With high blood pressure, that force is too strong and usually means the arteries have been narrowed by a build-up of plaque.

A blood-pressure reading consists of two numbers. The systolic, or top number, measures the pressure when your heart has just finished pumping blood into your arteries. The diastolic, or bottom number, is the pressure between beats when the heart is relaxed.

So what is high? A reading of 140 or above (systolic) and 90 or above (diastolic) is considered high. Prehypertension is now defined as 120 to 139 (systolic) and 80 to 89 (diastolic).

These new, more stringent national guidelines are based on research that shows the risk of heart disease and stroke increases at lower blood-pressure levels than previously thought.

Here are some tips from HAP to prevent the silent killer from sneaking up on you:

* Free blood-pressure checks are provided at some public health centers and senior centers and through local screening programs. To find out about services in your area, call HAP's free and confidential helpline at 1-888-4ELDERS (1-888-435-3377).

* Blood-pressure readings from automated testing devices, like those found in stores and pharmacies, may be unreliable and need to be confirmed by a doctor or health professional. A diagnosis of high blood pressure typically requires three or more high readings on successive visits to the doctor.

* Lifestyle choices can lower your risk. Maintain a healthy weight, stop smoking, exercise, limit alcohol, cut back on salt and processed foods, and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

* Find ways to manage or reduce stress, including deep breathing, yoga or walking.

* In addition to lifestyle and behavior changes, doctors may recommend that patients with hypertension take medications to lower their blood pressure and use a home blood-pressure monitor to keep track of their progress.

* Know the warning signs of heart attack and stroke. Call 911 immediately if you experience a sudden, severe headache, chest pain, weakness or paralysis in your face or limbs or other symptoms.

Visiting Nurse Services of the Northwest provides home monitoring programs that give patients more control over their own health and help them remain independent for as long as possible. Telehealth devices record vital signs, including blood pressure, and send them over phone lines to a registered nurse on duty. The Lifeline program connects residents to a 24-hour emergency monitoring system via the push of a button on a wristband or pendant.

For more information about high blood pressure and other issues related to life as an older adult, call 1-888-4ELDERS (1-888-435-3377). To learn more about HAP and its partner agencies, visit

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