Nutrition Column – Lifestyle Changes Effectively Lower Blood Pressure

What does one in every four adults have in common? High blood pressure. And the older one gets, the higher the risk of developing high blood pressure. In fact, by age 65, your risk of developing hypertension over the next 10 years is two in three. The risk doesn’t seem to differ between men and women, but it is positively associated with increased weight gain over time.

Why be concerned about high blood pressure? Because it increases your risk of suffering a stroke, heart attack or heart failure. Based on the results of 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 blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg or lower. While both numbers in the reading are important, the bottom number (diastolic pressure) is generally considered more carefully among 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 there are a number of lifestyle changes that have been shown to be effective in reducing blood pressure as well as helping to prevent it in the first place. Most studies in the past have looked at the effect of making one or two changes with the thought that doing more would be too difficult for people to accomplish. However, a recent study called PREMIER, conducted at Johns Hopkins and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that an "all-in-one" approach in which multiple lifestyle changes were made worked extremely well in reducing blood pressure. Now, during High Blood Pressure month, is a good time to make those changes found in the PREMIER study to be effective in lowering blood pressure. These include the following.

  • Aim for a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, even small amounts of weight loss can make a big difference in helping reduce and prevent high blood pressure.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. The subjects in the PREMIER study followed the DASH diet, an eating plan that places special emphasis on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables as well as low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds and whole grain products. The DASH diet also is low in sodium. The DASH diet is a good one for everyone in the family to follow. A free copy of the plan can be obtained from the NHLBI Health Information Center by calling (301) 592-8573 and asking for NIH pamphlet 01-4082, or by going 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 good sources of calcium; fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium; and whole grains, green leafy vegetables, unsalted nuts and dry beans are good sources of magnesium.
  • 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 do this in three 10-minute segments during the day.
  • 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’s health, more is not. For overall health, the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" recommends that men limit their alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day, and women to no more than one drink per day.
  • If you are a smoker, quit smoking. People who smoke are two to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who do not smoke.