Fifty million adults in the United States have hypertension (high blood pressure), a condition associated with an increased risk of death and disability from heart disease , stroke , congestive heart failure , and end-stage renal disease.

For most people, high blood pressure is marked by a systolic blood pressure (higher number) at or above 140 mmHg or diastolic blood pressure (lower number) at or above 90 mmHg. For persons with diabetes and certain other disorders, the “target” for blood pressure is kept lower; for many of these individuals, the normal blood pressure should be under 130 mmHg (systolic) and under 80 mmHg (diastolic).

Risk factors for high blood pressure include the following:

  • Age: Middle-aged or elderly
  • Race: African American
  • Sex: Male
  • Health background, such as having the following:
    • Diabetes
    • A high-normal blood pressure (systolic pressure of 120-139 mmHg and/or a diastolic pressure of 80-89 mmHg)
    • A family history of high blood pressure
  • Lifestyle factors such as the following:
    • Smoking
    • Being physically inactive
    • Taking oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
    • Consuming more than recommended amounts of dietary sodium and alcohol
    • Consuming insufficient amounts of potassium

Lifestyle Guidelines to Prevent or Reduce High Blood Pressure

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s National High Blood Pressure Education Program (NHBPEP) has updated its recommendations to prevent high blood pressure. The recommendations, published in the October 16, 2002 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association , include the following:

  • Having an adequate intake of potassium (more than 3,500 mg of potassium per day)
  • Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy products
  • Reducing consumption of saturated fat and total fat

NHBPEP also reinforces earlier recommendations, including the following:

  • Limiting consumption of sodium and alcohol
  • Reducing excess body weight
  • Increasing levels of physical activity

These lifestyle guidelines are essential for seniors and anyone else who is at risk for developing high blood pressure. Another approach currently endorsed by NHBPEP is use of the DASH diet , a special low salt diet which has been shown effective in both preventing and treating high blood pressure.

Report Addresses Less Proven Approaches

The NHBPEP report also addresses the fact that some widely publicized approaches have less proven or uncertain usefulness in preventing or lowering high blood pressure. These include fish oil ( omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids ) and calcium supplements, which lower blood pressure only slightly in individuals with hypertension. The report also cautioned that the ability of herbal and botanical supplements to safely lower high blood pressure is unproven and can adversely interact with medications. On a more positive note, a recent study suggests having a small amount of dark chocolate each day may be a tasty way lower you blood pressure a few points.