Does drinking alcohol raise blood pressure? What are the signs of high blood pressure? Find out the answers — and the truth behind common blood pressure misconceptions.
High blood pressure affects nearly half of adults in the United States, but only 1 in 4 has it under control. Also called hypertension, high blood pressure happens when the force required to pump blood through your blood vessels is too high. This can cause damage to your blood vessels, making them stiffer and decreasing blood flow and oxygen to your heart, eventually leading to heart disease — the number one cause of death in the country.
Here, we debunk some myths and highlight ways to reduce your risk for high blood pressure.
1. Myth: High blood pressure is over 140/90 mm Hg.
Fact: High blood pressure is over 130/80 mm Hg.
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“While high blood pressure used to be defined as over 140/90 mm Hg, that definition has changed in the past few years,” explains Parveen Garg, MD, a cardiologist at Keck Medicine of USC and an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Today, if someone has blood pressure over 130/80 mm Hg and has a history of cardiovascular disease — or, if they are at high risk for having a cardiovascular event — their physician may recommend taking blood pressure medication.”
What if only one number is high?
“The top and bottom numbers both matter — if either of them is high, then you have hypertension, and your risk of a heart attack or stroke is increased,” he says.
2. Myth: The signs of high blood pressure are obvious.
Fact: High blood pressure has no symptoms.
“Unless your blood pressure is dangerously high, you will not have any symptoms,” Garg says. “The long-term damage high blood pressure has on your arteries, however, occurs regardless of whether you have symptoms or not.”
3. Myth: As long as I don’t add too much salt to my food, I can eat what I want.
Fact: It’s not just table salt you have to worry about.
You may already know that salt causes high blood pressure. But, salt isn’t just what you add to your food from the saltshaker. According to Garg, some of the most common sources of dietary sodium also include:
- Breads and rolls
- Meat dishes, like meat loaf
- Cheeseburgers and other sandwiches
- Luncheon meats, like deli ham or turkey
- Pasta dishes
- Snack foods, like potato chips and pretzels
“It helps to reduce your dietary sodium intake to less than 2,400 mg a day and to follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan, which consists of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products,” he says. “Following the DASH diet may reduce your systolic blood pressure by 8 to 14 mm Hg.”
4. Myth: Drinking coffee can raise blood pressure.
Fact: It generally doesn’t — but alcohol can.
Because caffeine is a stimulant, you might think it gets your your blood pressure up, however, most research doesn’t show that to be the case.
“Regular caffeine consumption doesn’t typically raise your blood pressure, but it may be a factor for people who ingest it in high amounts from things like soda, coffee or energy drinks,” Garg says.
Alcohol, on the other hand, does have an impact. “Excessive alcohol intake can raise blood pressure,” he says.
Reducing alcohol consumption can have a positive impact on your blood pressure. Garg points out that limiting alcohol consumption to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women can reduce systolic blood pressure by 2 to 4 mm Hg.
5. Myth: High blood pressure is more common in men.
Fact: It depends on age.
“Before the age of 50, hypertension is more common in men than women, but after menopause, a woman’s risk increases and can even be higher than a man’s,” Garg says.
Women have a few additional considerations for high blood pressure. Taking birth control pills may raise their risk of hypertension. Women with high blood pressure may have a greater risk of complications during pregnancy; and women who develop high blood pressure during pregnancy are more at risk of having high blood pressure later in life.
6. Myth: The risk of high blood pressure is the same for people of all races.
Fact: Black adults have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
“Although the reasons why aren’t completely clear, hypertension is more common among Black adults than adults of other races and ethnicities,” Garg says.
High blood pressure may also develop at a younger age, be more severe and be more likely to lead to hospitalization. Experts think this may be because obesity and diabetes are more common among African Americans. There may also be genetic and socioeconomic components.
7. Myth: I don’t need to worry about blood pressure, if I’m young.
Fact: Although hypertension does affect older people, young people can have it, too.
“It’s true that high blood pressure is more common among older people,” Garg says. “This is because our arteries naturally stiffen as we age, and that increases the resistance within our arteries, which increases blood pressure.”
But younger adults can have high blood pressure, too, and this may be behind a disturbing trend toward more strokes among younger adults. Children and teens can also have high blood pressure, possibly because of an increase in childhood obesity.
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8. Myth: There’s nothing I can do to prevent high blood pressure, if it runs in my family.
Fact: Lifestyle changes can reduce your risk.
“High blood pressure can run in families — if your parents or close blood relatives have had high blood pressure, you are more likely to develop it, too,” Garg says. “However, lifestyle choices have allowed many people with a family history of high blood pressure to avoid it themselves.”
In addition to following a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise can have a large impact on reducing blood pressure, according to Garg.
“Significant weight loss can decrease systolic blood pressure by 5 to 20 mm Hg,” he says. “Exercising for 30 minutes every day can reduce systolic blood pressure by 4 to 9 mm Hg.”
It’s also important to reduce stress and make sure that you are getting enough shut-eye.
“Chronically high levels of stress and inadequate sleep can both contribute to high blood pressure,” Garg says. “Managing stress and ensuring you get adequate sleep can help reduce your blood pressure.”
9. Myth: If I’m on blood pressure medication, I don’t have to exercise or watch what I eat.
Fact: You still need to continue a healthy lifestyle.
“There is no substitute for trying to adhere to a heart-healthy diet and exercise! It is the most important measure you can take to reduce your risk for a heart attack or stroke,” Garg says. “When your doctor starts you on blood pressure medication, it is only because they believe these lifestyle measures are not enough to lower your blood pressure to normal.”
10. Myth: If my blood pressure comes down on medication, I can stop taking it.
Fact: You should continue taking it.
“High blood pressure is a lifelong condition. Medications do not cure hypertension,” Garg says. “If you stop taking your medications, then your blood pressure will rise again.”
If you have any questions or concerns about your medications or treatment plan for high blood pressure, talk to your doctor.
by Tina Donvito