Salt and smiles.
The two biggest bumps when it comes to managing your blood pressure.
That quirky smile you inherited from your Grandpa Jones? Grandpa also may have a proclivity for high blood pressure.
Add a salt-heavy diet to a family predisposition to hypertension, and you should be getting regular checks of your blood pressure, says Dr. Layne Barker, a family-medicine physician at Tanner Clinic Syracuse.
If you’re under 55 and you have a family history of high blood pressure, you might want to get getting checked now.
Unfortunately, that question on all doctors’ forms asking you if there’s hypertension in your family does actually matter.
Fluids retained by salt squeeze veins
High blood pressure is, as it sounds, pressure on your arteries. Often, the process is worsened by salt. Salt makes your body retain more fluids, which in turn press in on arteries, said Dr. Barker.
Retained fluid, adds Dr. Barker, “distends the veins and the arteries so when your heart pumps it’s got more volume and the pressure goes up.”
Unfortunately, salt is in much of our food, said Dr. Barker, because it’s such a time-tested preservative. Just check out the label on a can of green beans.
If you’re a member of a family tree that includes high blood pressure, you’ll need to take extra care with this ubiquitous seasoning.
One option is a product such as Mrs. Dash or a potassium-based seasoning. “It’s as least something you can do,” said Dr. Barker.
“A lot of the salt we eat is unintentional, when we just don’t read the labels and such,” the physician said. “As long as you don’t salt your food and you watch what you eat, I think that’s the best you can do with it.”
By the way, you can purchase low-sodium beans, he added, “but they just don’t taste as good.”
Hypertension a ‘silent killer’
High blood pressure puts its victims at higher risk for heart attack and stroke. “Your heart is pumping hard to pump the blood through your arteries, so that puts stress on your heart. It also puts stress on the blood vessels, which can lead to a stroke or heart attack,” he said.
High blood pressure can be added to the list of “silent killers” we face as we age. Diabetes and stroke-causing plaque in arteries are also on that list. Someone with high blood pressure and diabetes is in a double bind because of the potential damage to kidneys. “Kidneys are essential to diabetes because they help control blood pressure,” he said. “There can also be damage to other organs if your blood pressure is real high and uncontrolled.”
Patients have few signs to tell them their heart is struggling to pump blood through those maxed-out veins and arteries. If you get to the point where you can actually feel the pressure in your head, for instance, he said, “that’s usually an emergency.”
Medications work effectively
Luckily, there are several classes of medications that can slow the heart rate, dilate the veins or use some other mechanism, Dr. Barker said. “And sometimes you need four or five different medicines to control it.”
The most common medication Dr. Barker uses is lisinopril (brand names Prinivil and Zestril) which is inexpensive and effective. Lisinopril relaxes arterial muscles and enlarges arteries. The downside is that it can produce the side effect of a dry, hacking cough. “If you get a cough, we have to change the medicine,” he said. “It’s not dangerous, it’s just a nuisance.”
A free pass?
OK, one last scenario — What if you’re getting well up in years and don’t want to exclude salt from your diet? Dr. Barker laughs, “When you reach 70 or 80, you can do what you want. We’ll control the rest with medicine.”