Nutrition Column – High Blood Pressure: is Your Number Up?

According to a recent study, middle-aged Americans face a 90 percent chance of developing high blood pressure at some time as they grow older. What’s more, if you’re 55 years old, you have a 50 percent chance of developing high blood pressure in the next 10 years. By the time you reach 65 years of age, your risk for developing hypertension over the next 10 years is two in three. In the study, which was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the risk of developing hypertension did not differ between men and women but did seem to be positively associated with increased weight gain over time.

High blood pressure is a concern because it increases your risk of suffering a stroke, heart attack or heart failure. According to recent data from the Framingham Heart Study, even having a high-normal blood pressure reading of 130/85 mmHg increases one’s risk of having a stroke or heart attack in the next 10 years by 1.5 to 2.5 times. The higher the blood pressure, the higher the risk. High blood pressure is clinically defined as anything over 140/90 mmHg – optimal is 120/80 mmHg or lower. While both numbers in the reading are important, the bottom number (diastolic pressure) is generally considered more carefully for people under the age of 50, and the top reading (systolic pressure) becomes more predictive of problems with hypertension in people over the age of 55.

The good news is that high blood pressure can be treated and often delayed or prevented through medication and lifestyle changes. The best solution is to prevent high blood pressure before it occurs. During High Blood Pressure month this May would be a good time to resolve to make those changes in your eating habits and lifestyle that will help lower your risk of becoming a heart patient statistic. Following are some suggestions.

  • Aim for a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, even small amounts of weight loss can make a big difference in helping to reduce and prevent high blood pressure.
  • Be physically active each day. Get involved in at least 30 minutes of moderate activity such as walking most days of the week. You can even walk in three, 10-minute segments during the day.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. A recent clinical study, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, provided exciting evidence on the ability to lower blood pressure by eating a diet low in salt and rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. The DASH diet is good for everyone in the family. A free copy of the plan can be obtained from the NHLBI Health Information Center by calling (301) 592-8573. The plan also is online at
  • Choose foods lower in salt and sodium and higher in potassium, calcium and magnesium. Processed foods tend to be highest in sodium. Dairy foods are rich in calcium; fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium; and whole grains, green leafy vegetables, unsalted nuts and dry beans are good sources of magnesium.
  • If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and lead to chronic high blood pressure. While there’s evidence that some alcohol, especially red wine, may be good for your heart health, more is not better. For overall health, the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" recommends that men limit their alcohol intake to no more than two drinks a day, and women to no more than one drink a day.

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension