High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of heart disease, yet millions of us don’t know we have it. A simple test can reveal if you are at risk.
It’s one of England’s biggest killers, yet millions of us are walking around not knowing we have a ticking timebomb inside us.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is responsible for nearly a quarter of all deaths in this country every year, yet it is largely preventable.
That’s because the biggest cause of CVD is high blood pressure, which can be controlled by both medication and lifestyle changes.
The problem is that high blood pressure has no symptoms. It is estimated that 4 million people in England suffer from the condition yet are unaware of it, putting them more at risk of a stroke or heart attack. So it’s vital to have yours checked – it’s the only way to know.
Tests are available for free at your GP surgery and – if you are aged over 40 – at many pharmacies. Surgeries often have a machine in reception, so you don’t even need to make an appointment.
Get your blood pressure tested regularly as it could save your life.
WHAT IS CVD?
Cardiovascular disease is a general term for conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels. It’s usually associated with a build-up of fatty deposits inside the arteries and an increased risk of blood clots. It can also be associated with damage to arteries in organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys and eyes.
It’s most common in men, older people and ethnic minorities.
And while it can be caused by obesity, dietary factors, smoking and high cholesterol, the largest risk factor is high blood pressure, also called hypertension.
In fact, almost half of all deaths from CVD in this country are due to high blood pressure and around 40 per cent of all linked illnesses.
WHO IS MOST AT RISK?
While anyone can have high blood pressure, you are more likely to if you are overweight, have too much salt in your diet and not enough fruit and veg, or you don’t get enough exercise. Smokers, drinkers and the over-65s are also more likely to be at risk, along with people who are of black African or Caribbean descent. If you sleep badly or have a relative with high blood pressure, that can also increase your risk.
The problem with the condition is that it puts extra strain on your blood vessels, heart and other organs, such as the brain, kidneys and eyes. This increases your risk of developing serious and potentially life-threatening conditions such as heart attacks and strokes.
Yet, because it has no symptoms, around a third of people have no idea that they have high blood pressure. The only way to find out is to have it measured.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING A TEST?
You should be offered a blood pressure test during your NHS Health Check – available to those aged 40–74, done every five years – but it’s also available at your GP surgery and at many pharmacies and workplaces, too. You can also buy a monitor for use at home.
If you are aged over 40, you should have your blood pressure tested at least every five years.
To measure your blood pressure, a cuff is usually placed around your arm – sometimes your wrist – and inflated until two numbers appear on the monitor.
The top number (called systolic pressure) is the force at which your heart pumps blood around your body while the bottom number (diastolic pressure) is the resistance to the blood flow in the blood vessels.
Everyone’s blood pressure is slightly different, but as a general rule the ideal reading is considered to be between 90/60 and 120/80, while for those aged over 80 it’s anything below 150/90.
High blood pressure is thought to be 140/90 or, for those aged over 80, 150/90 or above.
However, if you are measuring your blood pressure at home, it’s slightly different: ideal is below 135/85 for adults aged under 80, below 145/85 for adults aged 80 and over.
It’s worth knowing that if your reading is between 120/80 and 140/90, it means you’re at risk of developing the condition if you don’t take steps to reduce it.
‘High blood pressure is a huge problem,’ says Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of Blood Pressure UK. ‘In fact, it is probably the biggest medical problem there is in terms of the number of deaths and serious disability it causes.
‘The problem is that it has no symptoms and there are large numbers of people walking around with high blood pressure without knowing it.
‘They are the ones who are really at risk, because we know if you can seek out these people, they benefit remarkably from lowering with drugs and lifestyle measures.
‘Treatment is very successful. But you have to have your blood pressure measured – people think that if they’re red-faced or have headaches they have it, but that’s not true. The only way is to get measured.’
If you find that yours is too high, blood pressure can be controlled through medication, lifestyle changes or both.
Next week, we’ll be looking at all the different, easy ways you can help reduce your blood pressure.
Get your blood pressure tested. Find out more at nhs.uk
‘I COLLAPSED ON A TRAIN IN MY FIFTIES’
Bettina Wallace, 69, is a retired civil servant who lives in Nottingham. She is married with three grown-up children.
She says: ‘Coming home from work one day with a colleague, the train was packed – it was standing room only. Throughout the journey I kept saying, “I don’t feel well.” Then everything went black and I collapsed. When I came round, people were talking about calling an ambulance, but I refused.
‘However, I did book an appointment to see a GP. When I saw him, he tested my blood pressure and said, “You’ve got high blood pressure.” I said, “No, I can’t have – I’m fit and healthy.” I was only in my fifties.
‘But I did have high blood pressure, and discovered that there’s a link between it and coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It is also prevalent in the Afro-Caribbean community.
‘Now I’m on medication, my blood pressure is stable and doesn’t bother me, so I do say to people: go to the doctor for your annual health check.’
‘I WAS DIAGNOSED AGED JUST 35’
Nikita McCormack, 42, works as a model-casting agent, and lives near Harlow, Essex, with her husband and two children.
She says: ‘I am now 42, and have been on high blood pressure medication for seven years. I’d had regular checks on my blood pressure for years, whenever I went for the contraceptive pill. It was fine, but after I had my daughter 10 years ago, it started to skyrocket. Not just a little – it was in the red. The top number was over 200 and the lower one was going up to over 95.
‘They took me into hospital, and it was controlled for a short while, but when I was 35, it skyrocketed again – I didn’t feel any different and I didn’t have any symptoms. When it didn’t improve, they put me on a medication.
‘At first, being on medication at 35 was worrying – I thought, “I’m so healthy, how can this happen to me?”
‘But my mum, who was also diagnosed with high blood pressure in her thirties, was so blasé about it, which helped. She’s text-book healthy, but it just shows you that it can happen to anyone.
‘Seven years on, and my blood pressure is under control, so it doesn’t scare me. It’s asymptomatic – I don’t get dizzy and it doesn’t affect me.
‘I’m a classic example of why you shouldn’t presume your blood pressure is fine because you’re young, healthy and go to the gym. It could be going through the roof and you’d never know. So get it checked.’
The NHS App: The gateway to good health
Next time you need a repeat prescription, why not use the NHS App instead of calling your surgery?
The NHS App is a simple and secure way to access a whole range of NHS services as well as find reliable information on hundreds of different conditions and treatments.
With the NHS App you can view your health information and order repeat prescriptions and have them sent to your pharmacy.
It can be used by anyone aged 13 and over, and can also be used to access services for someone you care for.
This article is part of a paid-for partnership with the UK Government