Every day, millions of Americans are walking hand-in-hand with a silent killer: high blood pressure (hypertension). A staggeringly disproportionate number of these people are Black.
High blood pressure occurs when the force of your blood pushing up against the walls of your blood vessels is consistently higher than it should be. It's often referred to as the "silent killer" because it doesn't typically cause symptoms, so many people don't even know they have it — but it can cause life-threatening organ damage and increase your risk for heart disease or stroke.
About 47% of US adults have high blood pressure, and for Black adults, that number is even higher.
- 56% of Black adults in the US will develop high blood pressure in the course of their lives.
- Black adults are 40% more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have high blood pressure.
- Black women are almost 60% more likely than non-Hispanic white women to have high blood pressure.
- Black people are more likely to have severe cases and develop high blood pressure earlier in life.
There are several reasons why Black people are at a greater risk for having high blood pressure — but there are also several ways to help keep your blood pressure in check. Let's take a look at five things you can do to help improve your blood pressure:
Make an appointment with your primary care provider.
Adults of all races sometimes avoid primary care appointments for one reason or another, but Black people utilize primary care services notably less than others. Black people are often more hesitant to seek primary care services where high blood pressure is most often diagnosed. Also, these primary care services tend to be less available in black neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, skipping out on regular check-ups means that you may not be getting blood pressure readings (or other important services and screenings that you can't get elsewhere). This means you risk not even learning that you have high blood pressure until having symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.
"High blood pressure causes organ damage over time. If you find it early on, you can stop that damage from happening. That's why it's so unfortunate when people don't learn they have high blood pressure until they're in the hospital, being treated for advanced kidney disease or heart failure. At that point, high blood pressure can still be managed, but the damage has been done." — Arthur O. Omondi, MD, cardiologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital
The rule of thumb is that if you can't remember the last time you had a check-up, it's probably time to get one. Not everyone needs to go every year — depending on your medical history or current health needs, your provider may recommend visits every 1 to 3 years.
Monitor your salt intake.
Too much sodium can translate to too high of a blood pressure reading.
We get most of our sodium in the form of salt. Salt is especially important to pay attention to if you are Black. Research has shown that Black people are more likely to eat foods that have a higher salt content than white people. There has been some evidence that Black people are more sensitive to salt, which means they may need to cut back even more.
Lowering your salt intake by any amount can reduce your blood pressure over the long term. One of the easiest ways to cut some salt out of your diet is to skip adding any extra salt — don't even have the salt shaker on the table.
You can also lower your salt intake by adopting the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet, which involves:
- Eating more fruits, vegetables, low-fat foods and whole grains
- Trading red meat for poultry and fish
- Limiting processed and packaged foods
- Cutting down on desserts and sweets
- Choosing foods that are high in magnesium, calcium and potassium
And keep an eye on your overall diet, too.
If you are overweight, losing as little as 5 to 10 pounds can help you lower your blood pressure. But watching your diet isn't all about weight loss — it's also about getting essential nutrients that are mission critical in maintaining healthy blood pressure, including:
- Potassium (bananas, beans, poultry, fish, milk, tomatoes, broccoli)
- Magnesium (legumes, nuts, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, milk, yogurt)
- Calcium (milk, yogurt, kale, broccoli, salmon with bones, unsweetened almond milk)
Also, limit your alcohol intake. Binge drinking (5 or more drinks* for a man or 4 or more drinks for a woman on one occasion) or long-term heavy drinking can both lead to chronic high blood pressure. Men should consume no more than two drinks per day and women should have no more than one drink per day.
*Remember: "One" drink doesn't just mean that you've filled up one glass. A drink is considered 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1 oz of 100-proof spirits and 1.5 oz of 80-proof spirits.
Don't forget about physical activity.
Physical activity keeps your blood vessels and heart strong, which can help lower blood pressure, yet most adults do not exercise enough. Among US adults, about 25% report being physically inactive, and that number increases to 30% in the Black population.
You don't need to belong to a gym or run a marathon to get the recommended amount of exercise. Simply taking a 30-minute walk each day can go a long way towards lowering your blood pressure. If you don't have a safe or comfortable place to walk outdoors, there are plenty of free workouts available online that don't require equipment.
Keep your stress in check.
Studies have not shown that stress directly causes high blood pressure. However, among healthcare professionals, there is a consensus that stress plays a role in raising blood pressure.
Even if stress doesn't itself cause high blood pressure, it is known to lead to behaviors that can raise blood pressure (think reaching for a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips after a particularly challenging day). Instead of hitting the snack cabinet, try healthier ways to cope with stress, such as meditating or spending more time with your loved ones. You might also benefit from working with a behavioral health specialist, like a psychologist or therapist.
Staying on top of your blood pressure
If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, Main Line Health cardiologists are here to help. To schedule an appointment with a Lankenau Heart Institute specialist, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.