Control Blood Pressure to Head Off Stroke

Stroke is the third leading cause of death among Americans. And, like its partner, high blood pressure, it rarely gets the respect it deserves.

A stroke is basically a brain attack–a disruption of normal blood flow to the brain. About four million Americans have permanent disability caused by stroke. Yet stroke is generally considered the most preventable serious medical condition.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is the number one risk factor for stroke. And it’s also one of the most common medical conditions, affecting nearly 50 million Americans.

When elevated blood pressure is detected early and treated with medications and lifestyle changes, it can be controlled indefinitely with no ill effects. The SHEP (Systolic Hypertension in the Elderly) study, for example, found that treatment of moderately high blood pressure resulted in 37 percent fewer strokes among older patients. Another study concluded that a blood pressure reduction of even 5 to 6 points resulted in a 42 percent reduction in stroke incidence.

Blood pressure is a measure of the force pushing against the sides of blood vessels. When it remains consistently high, it eventually takes a toll on blood vessels, weakening them and making them susceptible to the buildup of plaque deposits, known as atherosclerosis. These deposits in turn make it hard to pump blood–putting stress on the heart itself and on blood vessels throughout the body, most notably those in the kidneys, the heart and the brain.

“Blood pressure tends to rise with advancing age and is associated with excess weight, lack of exercise, smoking, excessive use of alcohol and a high-sodium, high-fat diet,” said Margaret Alvarez, RN, MSN, ACNP-BC, Ministry Medical Group in Woodruff. “Even patients who comply with their medications may have trouble controlling blood pressure if they continue unhealthy habits.”

A good plan usually recommended by doctors is the DASH (Dietary Approaches To Stop Hypertension) diet. DASH includes five servings of fruits and five servings of vegetables each day along with substantial amounts of whole grains and low-fat dairy products but limited quantities of saturated and trans fats.

Other studies have found a reduced incidence of stroke associated with eating whole grain foods and engaging in regular exercise such as brisk walking. These lifestyle measures have all been found to lower blood pressure.

“Sodium is a major factor, particularly for persons who are salt sensitive and prone to retention of fluids when eating salty foods,” said Alvarez. “Lowering sodium intake involves not just avoiding the salt shaker but watching the kinds of food you eat. Fast foods, restaurant foods and prepared foods are always high in sodium, unless the label or menu says otherwise.”

Generally speaking, the higher the blood pressure and the longer it is maintained at that level, the greater the risk of stroke. A normal level is 120/80, while those with blood pressure between 130 to 139/85-89, who do not have any other medical problem, should have their blood pressure monitored frequently since it can be associated with significant risk of developing hypertension overtime. Patients with diabetes, chronic kidney disease and cardiovascular disease should have their blood pressure goal be less than 130/80.

A diagnosis of high blood pressure should be taken as an important warning. The next sign may be either a TIA (mini-stroke) or a full-blown stroke. Signs include: numbness or weakness, particularly on one side of the body; difficulty talking or understanding; sudden loss of sight or changes in vision on one or both sides; dizziness, loss of coordination and balance; confusion, mood changes; or loss of consciousness.

Stroke is a life-threatening emergency that requires action. And it often starts with a simple diagnosis of high blood pressure.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with a Ministry Medical Group provider call 715-356-8920 in Woodruff or 715-477-3000 in Eagle River.

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