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The No. 1 enemy of stroke

May 26, 2016 | Wengui Yu, MD, PhD
Taking blood pressure

When was the last time you checked your blood pressure?

You might think you’re OK because you don’t have symptoms such as severe headache or ringing in your ears. Yet many people with high blood pressure, also called hypertension, don’t experience symptoms until damage has already been done. So when they experience a stroke, it’s often the result of having had high blood pressure for years.

That’s why we call high blood pressure the “silent killer.”

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and for most of the nearly 800,000 Americans who suffer a stroke each year, high blood pressure is to blame. Although about 80 million US adults (about 1 in 3 people) have high blood pressure, an estimated 8 percent don’t know it.

May is Stroke Awareness Month, and as director of the UCI Health Comprehensive Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center, I would like to share some information that could save your life or that of a loved one.

Why high blood pressure raises risk

When someone has high blood pressure (HBP), the force of blood pushing against his or her artery walls gradually weakens and damages the arteries. Over time, it creates sections that can bulge out and then rupture or become inflamed, narrow and clogged.

Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your brain. So, if a narrowed or clogged artery cuts off blood flow to your brain, then your brain cells begin to die. This is called an ischemic stroke. If an artery in or near the brain ruptures, blood leaks into the surrounding tissue. This is called a hemorrhagic stroke.

Some common misconceptions

Many people ignore their blood pressure because they believe symptoms will warn them before anything serious occurs. As I mentioned, symptoms often do not arise until damage has already begun. It is often too late to learn that high blood pressure is the culprit when you suffer a major stroke.

Others do get diagnosed early and receive medication from their doctor to control their blood pressure. However, too many stop taking medicine once their blood pressure becomes normal because they think their hypertension has been “cured.” But there is no cure. There are only ways to manage and control blood pressure. In time, you may be able to reduce — or even eliminate — your medication, but most people need to take it for a lifetime.

If your blood pressure is still high despite taking medicine daily, it is important to discuss it with your family doctor or to see a specialist.

Manage blood pressure to reduce your risk

If you have a family history of hypertension or diabetes, or you are overweight, you need to get regular checks of your blood pressure. You can see your doctor for regular appointments, buy a blood pressure kit and learn how to use it, or use the free machines located at many pharmacies.

Even if you have no known risk factors, you still should check your blood pressure to determine if it is normal or elevated:

  • If it is normal (less than 120/80), continue to check it every few months.
  • If elevated (120-139/80-89 or higher), see your doctor.
  • You may need medication if your top number (systolic) is over 140 or your bottom number (diastolic) is over 90.

Manage or prevent it

You can manage — or even prevent — high blood pressure and stroke by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

  • Try to eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
  • Avoid high-fat foods such as red meat and reduce your sodium intake.
  • Excessive salt in your food or drinking soft drinks, which have a lot of sodium, can raise your risk of hypertension.
  • A good exercise habit is also vital. Walk a few miles a day or do another moderate exercise. Some people can ride a bike for an hour or run for a mile or two. Just do what is comfortable for you. If you’ve never exercised before, start slowly and build over time.

Your doctor is your healthcare partner and can help guide you. But it all starts with you. Get your blood pressure checked, monitor it as needed and build a healthy lifestyle. By doing so, you’ll not only reduce your stroke risk but also improve your overall well-being.

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