High blood pressure is costing the NHS more than £2 billion a year, new Public Health England (PHE) figures reveal.
It affects one in three UK adults, yet around five million aren’t aware of it because often it is symptomless – which is why it’s dubbed the ‘silent killer’.
This means getting your blood pressure checked is vital; linked with stroke, heart disease, vascular dementia and chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure’s a major cause of premature death and disability.
While it can sometimes be caused by other illnesses, certain medications and run in families (risk also increases with age, mostly affecting over 55s), most often, exact causes can’t be pinpointed, but lifestyle factors certainly play a big part.
A few tweaks can really help prevent – and even reverse, sometimes eliminating the need for medication – high blood pressure.
But aside from the usual – not being overweight, being physically active and eating a healthy, balanced diet – what can we do?
Ditch the salt shaker
“Government recommendations state we should be consuming no more than 6g a day, but our current intakes are a third higher than that, at an average of 8.1g a day,” says Sonia Pombo, a nutritionist at Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH).
Cutting excess intake has a significant impact, reducing strokes by around 22% and heart attacks by 16%. Not adding it while cooking and ditching the dining table shaker is an easy way to cut back.
How about using herbs, spices and pepper to add flavour instead?
Be label savvy
“Unfortunately, with almost 75% of our salt intake coming from processed foods, most of us aren’t even aware how much we actually eat,” adds Pombo.
Checking food labels means you can avoid hidden salt. White bread’s a known culprit as are processed foods like bacon, as well as ready-meals and pre-prepared sauces. Steer clear of foods which contain more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium).
Low-salt foods usually contain 0.3g or less per 100g, and often will have a green colour on the front-of-pack nutrition label.
Go easy on the booze
Research shows that men who regularly drink more than eight units of alcohol a day are four times more likely to develop high blood pressure, while women who regularly consume more than six units daily are twice as likely.
Sticking to the recommended daily limits – two to three units for women (one 175ml glass of wine = 2.3 units) and three to four units for men (pint of beer = 2.3 units), will reduce your long-term risk of high blood pressure.
While smoking causes a temporary rise in blood pressure, there isn’t conclusive evidence that it causes long-term high blood pressure.
However, we do know smoking’s very bad news for hearts and arteries and a major cause of heart disease, so quitting certainly does your health a big favour, especially if you do develop high blood pressure.
Be snack wise
Biscuits and crisps are best seen as an occasional treat, rather than everyday snacks, as chances are they’re sending your salt levels soaring.
Great snacks include bananas which are rich in potassium, known to help combat high blood pressure and counter the effects of salt (potatoes are another good source), plain yoghurt (bulk it out with oats or berries for double the heart-boosting points), nuts (the unsalted/unroasted varieties, of course), or any fruit or veg you fancy.
Stress can cause heart rate and blood pressure to soar temporarily, but like smoking, there’s no confirmation that it causes long-term high blood pressure.
Having said that, chronic stress can contribute to lifestyle factors – like drinking more, exercising less and comfort eating – which may increase our chances of high blood pressure.
Also, stress can make us less able to cope with the affects of other health problems or worsen their symptoms, so avoiding problematic stress and finding ways to de-stress – like regular exercise and hobbies – helps.