What you should know about the new blood pressure guidelines

The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association released new blood pressure guidelines this year for the first time since 2003, effectively lowering the range for normal blood pressure to 120/80. That’s a dramatic drop and the reason the new guidelines have been making headlines. Suddenly, 50% of Americans are considered to have high blood pressure, according to a recent article published in U.S. News and World Report. Here’s what you should know.

What are the new guidelines:

  • Elevated blood pressure is now considered a systolic blood pressure (the top number) between 120 and 129.
  • Stage 1 high blood pressure (a diagnosis of hypertension) is now between 130 and 139 systolic or between 80 and 89 diastolic (the bottom number).
  • Stage 2 high blood pressure is now over 140 systolic or 90 diastolic.

What it means if you now have “Elevated BP”

If you now have “elevated” blood pressure, it doesn’t automatically mean you need medications. “The new guidelines recommend diet and lifestyle changes as the first steps in treatment. Simply changing what you eat can drop your systolic blood pressure buy as much as 10-15 points,” says Dr. Bailey, Director of Cardiac Rehab and the Cardiovascular Fellowship Program at the Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute. You may lower your BP even further by adopting more of the healthy lifestyle steps below:

  1. Get plenty of physical activity. It has immediate effects on your blood pressure! When you exercise, the body releases nitric oxide, which opens up the blood vessels and lowers your BP. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days, but preferably all days, of the week.
  2. Eat a healthy diet. Research has found that a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, such as those found in olive oil or nuts, can help you maintain a normal BP or lower yours if it’s high. Importantly, avoiding processed food is key to maintaining good health.
  3. Say no to sodium. High sodium intake is a leading cause of high blood pressure. The AHA recommends limiting sodium intake to less than 2,400 milligrams per day, roughly the equivalent of one teaspoon. Look for sodium levels on the nutritional info at restaurants and the nutrition label on packaged foods.
  4. Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol can increase blood pressure, so if you drink, do so moderately — no more than one drink per day for women and two for men.
  5. Don’t smoke. Nicotine causes blood vessels to constrict, which raises blood pressure.
  6. Check your BP levels regularly. High blood pressure often has no symptoms and is known as “the silent killer”, so it’s especially important to keep an eye on.

If you have Stage 1 high BP, Dr. Bailey, says, “treatment depends on your risk factors, including family history, high cholesterol or diabetes.” For the average risk patient, diet and lifestyle changes described above will also be the first step. If these changes do not produce results, or for patients with higher risk factors, medications will likely be added to treatment.

For patients with Stage 2 high BP, drug therapy and lifestyle changes should begin at time of diagnosis.

Why High BP treatment is so important 

Maintaining normal blood pressure is important for your health. High BP can lead to heart attack and stroke, two of the leading causes of death among Americans. Just a 20 point higher systolic blood pressure or 10 point higher diastolic blood pressure can double one’s risk of death from vascular disease. Over a longer period of time, high BP can also damage the body and organs, often with no noticeable symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they can include headache, dizziness and fatigue—symptoms that are easy to overlook.

Guidelines recommend team approach for best results

Since high BP treatment involves diet, lifestyle, medication and intervention at times, the new guidelines recommend a team approach to treating high BP for the best results. “That’s the approach we take at the Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute,” says Dr. Bailey. “We’ve assembled a team of world-class cardiologists and surgeons who work together to find the best treatment path for patients with high BP.”

If you have high blood pressure or another condition affecting the heart, Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute offers a full range of care, including a Hypertension Management Center.

Changing your diet can be a tall order for anyone. We have developed the Food Rx class series to give you the tools you need to feel confident in your food choices and meal preparation. For more information or to register for this local series beginning in January, please call the Chattanooga Lifestyle Center at 423-778-9400.