Updated 07 July 2014

Hypertension: the ticking time bomb

17 May is World Hypertension Day. South Africa has one of the highest rates of hypertension worldwide. Could you have high blood pressure and not know it?

With 6.3 million people living with high blood pressure, South Africa has one of the highest rates of hypertension worldwide. The question is: are you one of them?

The impact of high blood pressure is particularly devastating because many remain unaware that they are suffering from this "silent killer". If you think that this condition is not much to worry about, think again – this hidden epidemic results in a frightening nine million deaths around the world every year, with about half of those due to heart disease and stroke.

The truth is that high blood pressure is a serious condition that you need to be aware of. It has devastating effects in South Africa, resulting in early death and disability from strokes and heart disease, amongst other diseases. If left uncontrolled, high blood pressure can also cause blindness, kidney disease and heart failure, and the risk increases in the presence of other risk factors such as diabetes.

Statistics show that about 130 heart attacks and 240 strokes occur daily in South Africa. This means that 10 people will suffer a stroke and five people will have a heart attack every hour. If you don’t know if you are hypertensive, you could be living with a ticking time bomb.

What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is created by the force of blood pushing against the walls of blood vessels (arteries) when the heart contracts and relaxes. It is needed to keep the blood flowing through the blood vessels around the body.

However, high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is when the blood vessels have persistently raised pressure. This develops if the walls of the arteries lose their natural elasticity and become hard. It can cause the heart to have to work harder to pump the blood around the body, making the heart weaker.

When your doctor tells you your blood pressure reading, it is expressed as one figure "over" another, for example, 120/80. This is considered a "normal" blood pressure reading in a healthy adult. The top, or larger number measures the pressure generated when the heart contracts (pumps). The bottom, smaller number reflects the pressure in the arteries while the heart relaxes between heartbeats.

A single high reading does not necessarily mean that you have high blood pressure, but high blood pressure is diagnosed if someone has a BP of 140/90 or above, measured on several occasions.

What can you do?

The good news is that high blood pressure is both preventable and treatable. The first step is to know what your blood pressure is – you can find this out at your doctor, local hospital, clinic, or at a Heart and Stroke Foundation screening event near you.

If you do discover that you are hypertensive, you can be reassured that the condition is treatable. Controlling high blood pressure, together with other risk factors, is the main way that you can prevent heart attack and stroke. For many people, it can be controlled with lifestyle changes alone, and, in some cases, medication. However, detecting elevated blood pressure early is key.

You can minimise your risk of developing high blood pressure by making the following lifestyle changes:
  • Following a healthy diet can go a long way to help you control your blood pressure
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet, with small, regular meals
  • Try to reduce your salt intake by: reducing the salt added to your food during cooking and at the table, and limiting the use of high salt foods, such as salty snacks, processed meats, take-aways and convenience meals, stocks, soup powders and gravies
  • Enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables, and aim to have at least 5 servings a day
  • Choose whole grain and high fibre foods
  • Try to include fatty fish (sardines, pilchards, salmon, mackerel) at least twice a week
  • Limit red or fatty meat, fried foods and high fat snack foods, and including more ‘good’ fats (vegetable oils, soft tub marg, nuts, seeds, avo) in your diet
  • If you drink alcohol, we recommend that you limit it to no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men
- (SA Heart and Stroke Foundation. Sign up for their monthly newsletter)

(Photo of happy family from Shutterstock)

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Hypertension expert

Dr Jacomien de Villiers qualified as a specialist physician at the University of Pretoria in 1995. She worked at various clinics at the Department of Internal Medicine, Steve Biko Hospital, these include General Internal Medicine, Hypertension, Diabetes and Cardiology. She has run a private practice since 2001, as well as a consultant post at the Endocrine Clinic of Steve Biko Hospital.

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