The chance that your blood pressure will rise increases steadily as you grow older. But simple dietary changes can help maintain healthy blood pressure and prevent related health problems that occur when blood pressure gets too high.

Pressure-Related Problems

Your blood pressure is usually recorded as two numbers, for example 120/80. The upper number, or systolic pressure, measures the force in your blood vessels when your heart contracts. The lower number, or diastolic pressure, represents the force while your heart rests between beats. Though both pressures may fluctuate, pressures should normally stay below 135/85. Accurate readings on several occasions of 140/90 or higher mean that you have hypertension.

Even slight elevations in blood pressure may put you at risk for developing serious problems. Hypertension is the leading cause of coronary heart disease. And it increases your odds of having a stroke. In addition, high blood pressure can contribute to congestive heart failure, hardening of the arteries, kidney disease, and blindness. Fortunately, certain dietary steps may ward off many of these complications.

A DASH of Prevention

In 1997 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published the results of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study. DASH researchers found that adults can reduce their blood pressure by eating a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods. Study results showed that the DASH diet works as effectively as some blood pressure medications. Today, the NIH recommends the DASH diet for adults of all ages who want to reduce blood pressure. It may even lower pressure some in those with normal blood pressure.

Eating the DASH Diet

For a person who eats 2,000 kilocalories a day, the DASH diet calls for:

  • Grains: 6-8 servings each day
  • Vegetables: 4-5 servings each day
  • Fruits: 4-5 servings each day
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy products: 2-3 servings each day
  • Meats, poultry, eggs, and fish: no more than 6 servings each day
  • Nuts, seeds, and legumes: 4-5 servings each week
  • Fats and oils: 2-3 servings each day
  • Sweets: no more than 5 servings a week

Salt Sense

Results from the second phase of the DASH study completed in 2000 (called DASH-Sodium) indicate that cutting salt intake is another effective way to lower blood pressure. After 14 weeks of monitoring 412 adults on six different diets, researchers found those who consumed a DASH diet with only 1500 mg (milligrams) of sodium a day had the biggest improvement in their blood pressures.

On this diet, people with and without hypertension had significant reductions in blood pressure. Those with hypertension saw their blood pressures drop even more. The researchers concluded that eating less salt may help reduce the risk of high blood pressure as you grow older.

Calorie Control and Alcohol Moderation

Besides curtailing use of the saltshaker, reducing your weight and alcohol intake may help lower blood pressure, too. In a 30-month study of 875 hypertensive people aged 60-80, obese participants who lost about ten pounds were 64% less likely to have high blood pressure or require blood pressure-lowering medication than those who did not lose weight. Guidelines from the American Heart Association also recommend limiting alcohol consumption to one daily drink for women and two for men, for better blood pressure control.