Think of high blood pressure - or hypertension as doctors call it - and you probably think headaches, dizzy spells and a florid complexion. However, most people with high blood pressure have no pain, no symptoms and many will not even know that their blood pressure is high.
Four in every 10 men and women have hypertension, but about 80% of them are not being treated for it. Yet hypertension can be fatal. It dramatically increases your risk of developing heart and kidney disease and increases your risk of stroke and heart failure sixfold.
Our guide to blood pressure
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure, the force of blood against the artery walls, is measured in millimetres of mercury (mm Hg) and recorded as two numbers - the systolic pressure (as the heart beats) over (as the heart relaxes between beats).
The first figure is the most important measure in older people. As we age we are more likely to have a raised systolic pressure while the diastolic pressure remains normal - this is known as isolated systolic hypertension and still needs treatment.
Blood pressure is considered high if it is over 140/90 but you should be concerned if it's in the upper range of normal - 130/85 - and take measures to bring it down, as the risk rises when systolic pressure goes over 110.
Learn more about tracking your blood pressure numbers
Take control of your blood pressure
Have your blood pressure checked regularly. Learn what the figures mean and if it's on the high side talk to your doctor about ways to lower it.
The Blood Pressure Association recommends that anyone in the upper normal range is checked annually.
If you have hypertension your doctor will check it more often. If your pressure is at the lower end of the normal range - 120/80 or below - have it checked every three or four years.
Blood pressure medications
Depending on how high your blood pressure is, your GP may decide that you should take medication to bring it down.
Your GP will decide which type of medication is most suitable for you, depending on your circumstances.
ACE is short for angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors. These medicines work by making the blood vessels relax, so that they widen. This means that your blood pressure goes down. Examples include ramipril and perindopiril.
If your doctor prescribes ACE inhibitors they will need to carry out blood tests on a regular basis to check your potassium levels, how well your kidneys are working, and how your blood pressure is responding.
Main potential side effects – a dry cough that is hard to shake off. If this carries on you may want to talk to your GP about the possibility of taking a different drug.
These drugs are also occasionally called ARBs – angiotensin receptor blockers. These also work by relaxing your blood vessels, so allowing the blood to flow more easily and reducing blood pressure. As with ACE inhibitors you will need regular blood tests to check on your kidneys and blood pressure.
Side effects may include some dizziness, particularly if you develop low blood pressure.
Calcium channel blockers
By reducing the amount of calcium that reaches your body’s arteries’ muscles these drugs allow your arteries to relax, and contract less. This means that more blood reaches your heart, and it takes less effort to pump blood through your arteries and veins.
Diuretics (water pills)
If you have too much water and salt in your system these medicines help your body get rid of it through your urine. They can sometimes make you feel thirstier than normal, make you need to go to the bathroom more often, and may make you feel dizzy.
These drugs help reduce your blood pressure by reducing the rate and force at which your heart beats. These are less popular now than they used to be, as they are seen as less effective than other blood pressure medications. However, they may be prescribed if other blood pressure treatments haven’t worked.
The exact medication that your GP prescribes for you will depend on your circumstances. It’s really important to make sure that you take medication exactly as prescribed, and that you attend all your appointments.
Saga Health Insurance may be able to provide you with cover even if you already have high blood pressure (hypertension), subject to some simple health questions and an additional premium. Find out more.
Lifestyle changes to help lower your blood pressure
Cut down on salt
What you eat can make a big difference to your blood pressure and your health generally. One of the most important steps you can take for your blood pressure is to cut back on the amount of salt you eat.
A high salt diet pushes blood pressure up and most people in the UK eat twice the recommended daily 6g of salt, three quarters of this coming from processed and takeaway foods. It has been estimated that cutting salt intake by 3g a day would reduce strokes by 13% and heart disease by 10%.
Aim to eat seven or eight portions of fruit and vegetables daily. As well as being rich in anti-oxidants, which help protect against arterial damage, they are good sources of potassium which has been shown to help lower blood pressure.
Cut down on alcohol
Alcohol, like salt, pushes your blood pressure up. Occasionally drinking too much – more than three alcoholic drinks in one session – can raise your blood pressure on a temporary basis.
However, regularly drinking more than the government’s guidelines can mean that you develop high blood pressure (also known as high blood pressure), that won’t go away without medication.
Alcohol contains a lot of calories, so if you drink a lot, you’ll put weight on, which is another way in which alcohol puts you at risk of high blood pressure.
Being overweight increases your risk of a number of health problems. It does this by pushing up your cholesterol levels and your blood pressure.
We all need cholesterol (fatty material that comes from your liver, and certain foods) to keep our bodies working properly. However, having more cholesterol than we need, can be harmful.
High cholesterol levels can cause atherosclerosis, where your arteries become narrower because of a build-up of cholesterol deposits.
Atherosclerosis can raise your chances of:
- coronary heart disease
- heart attack
- mini-stroke or transient ischaemic attack
Being overweight can also raise the risk of you developing Type 2 diabetes, which increases your likelihood of having too much glucose in your blood. This excess glucose – also known as blood sugar – that comes with diabetes, can have damaging effects on the inner walls of your blood vessels and arteries.
If you are overweight and overwhelmed by the thought of having to lose lots of weight, set yourself manageable goals – perhaps aiming for a couple of lbs to start with. Losing a relatively small amount of weight will help reduce your blood pressure, and give you a sense of achievement.
Exercise can prevent or delay the development of hypertension and reduce high blood pressure. It will also keep your weight down, strengthen your heart, reduce levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and help boost beneficial HDL cholesterol.
If you already have heart health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, or other heart conditions, doing some physical activity should help improve your heart health. If you haven’t done any exercise for a while, and have heart or other health problems, talk to your GP or heart specialist to find out the best way to start.
Walking is a good way to get started, as you can do this almost anywhere, and it doesn’t cost anything (except, perhaps, the price of a good pair of walking shoes/trainers).
Whatever exercise you choose, try to do two and a half hours – 150 minutes – every week (you can build up from this amount if you want to). Start off gently, maybe doing 10 minutes at a time to begin with, and working up to 20 then 30 minutes of exercise at a time.
Don’t try to beat any records, at least to begin with. Aim for moderate-intensity activity to start with. You’re likely to know if you’re working at this level if you’re feeling warmer and breathing harder than usual, and your heart is beating faster than it normally does. You should be able to chat to a friend while doing this.
Put on your dancing shoes
Several studies suggest that dancing can be part of your armoury against high BP. They include a Brazilian study of high-blood-pressure sufferers, with an average age of 62, which found that attending a dance class three times a week for three months led to a marked decline in BP.
A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis meanwhile concluded that dance therapy can reduce both systolic and diastolic BP.
Any dance that includes bouts of fast and slow activity should do the trick. By pushing up the heart rate then letting it recover for a short time, the activity improves the condition of the lining of your arteries.
Research suggests that tea – preferably green or Ooolong – may help lower blood pressure. According to a 2019 paper in the journal Nutrients plant chemicals found in tea and byproducts of these have an important role in several mechanisms involved in regulating BP.
These include relaxing the ‘smooth’ muscle of the artery walls, enhancing the activity of nitric oxide, a compound that causes blood vessels to widen, reducing inflammation in the arteries, inhibiting the activity of renin, and combatting oxidative stress in the arteries.
Nibble a cube of cheese
A daily 30g (1oz) serving of Grana Padano, a hard, full-fat aged cheese a bit like Parmesan, lowered mild-to-moderate high BP according to an Italian study. The secret is thought to lie in small molecules (peptides) produced by fermentation that act like the BP-lowering drugs ACE inhibitors.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin Dairy Research Institute, meanwhile, are studying the activity of these peptides and how they might increase them in cheese.
Listen to some Mozart or Strauss
Mozart lowered the systolic (upper) BP reading by 4.7mmHg in a German study, while Strauss reduced the diastolic (lower) reading by 2.9mmHg.
Rhythmic sighing, once every 50 seconds between normal breaths, helps lower BP, according to a 2015 US study.
A University of Kansas study found that even a fake smile reduces heart rate in tense situations. Time to tune into your favourite Romcom.
Turn up the thermostat
If the weather outside is frightful, throw an extra log on the fire and put another jumper on. Heat widens the blood vessels.
Try to de-stress
Stress affects nearly all of us, at some time or another. It may be because of a stressful event – a doctor’s appointment, or an operation, for instance – or because of arguments or money worries.
Stress affects us physically as well as mentally. It’s not surprising that we sometimes feel physically unwell when we are stressed, as this causes our bodies to release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Having high levels of these hormones – which can happen when you have long-term stress – do affect us physically. The symptoms include:
- high blood pressure (even though you won’t feel its effects)
- trouble sleeping
- panic attacks
- feeling sick
Stress can be overwhelming I it can even seem sometimes as though it has taken over your life, but there are things that you can do to reduce your stress levels.
Try some relaxation techniques. Deep breathing can help relieve the tension that stress can cause in you neck and shoulders. Or you could try mindfulness exercises, where you relax mind and body together.
Going for a walk, especially if you can walk in a green area, such as a park, is known to be good for reducing your stress levels. The combination of being outside, having some exercise, and being among trees, plants and wildlife is known to help you relax.
Listening to music can be a great distraction from your worries. Choose music that you particularly like, and music that holds special, happy memories for you. Doing this is known to have an almost instant effect on the brain, bringing back those happy feelings.
Talk about your worries. If health, money or other problems are weighing heavily on you, ask a close friend or relative who you know will listen sympathetically, if you can talk to them.
Sometimes just getting a problem, out into the open can help reduce your anxiety. The person you talk to may be able to offer useful ideas, and may be able to suggest where you can go for help. They may offer to drive you to your GP’s for a doctor’s appointment, or arrange for a taxi. Try not to keep your worries to yourself – that may well just make them seem worse.
Squeeze a stress ball
Try it for ten seconds, then release. It’s thought this activity moderates the chemoreceptor reflex, a part of the nervous system that regulates BP.
What stress does to your health
Saga Health Insurance offers a range of health plans which provide cover if you develop high blood pressure (hypertension). If you've already been diagnosed they can often still cover your hypertension anyway, subject to some simple health questions and an additional premium. Find out more.