The risks of hypertension

Retirement doesn’t come easily to Bettye Cooper.

She has tried a couple of times.

But at age 71, it still hasn’t stuck. Currently she’s a rental agent for a 32-apartment complex in Hartford.

About a year an half ago, she was renting out an apartment and started to feel poorly. “I felt extremely warm, the room started getting small and I started getting a pain up my left shoulder and arm that stopped at my elbow.”

She finished up with her client, took a Pepcid and an aspirin and had her husband walk across the street with her to the clinic.

“Next thing I know, I was on a gurney being taken into (Sioux Falls). My blood pressure was 210 over something.”

She was having a heart attack.

While Cooper knew she had high blood pressure for years before her heart attack, most people don’t realize it until they’ve had some sort of medical emergency, says Tom Stys, interventional cardiologist with Sanford Heart Hospital and medical director of the cardiology program.

High blood pressure is often called the silent killer because there are few symptoms, and those symptoms may be vague and easily ignored.

Thirty-three percent of Americans have high blood pressure, or hypertension.

That statistic hasn’t changed much in a decade, says Sarah Yoon, an epidemiologist at CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

However, more than half of those aware of their hypertension do not have their blood pressure adequately controlled, says Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California.

Yet 80 percent of hypertension is preventable through lifestyle modifications, Stys says. Simple remedies such as regular exercise, weight loss and diet improvements can net big changes.

Men are at a higher risk of developing hypertension, as are those who are overweight and physically inactive, Stys says.

An elevated blood pressure affects all major organs, including the heart, brain, kidneys and even eyes. It also increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, Stys says.

Blood pressure, as defined by the American Heart Association, is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the blood vessels. When it’s high, that means the pressure in the arteries is elevated. The reading is written as two numbers: The top is the systolic pressure, or the pressure when the heart beats; the bottom is the pressure when the heart rests in between beats.

Clint Brown didn’t know he had high blood pressure. Fit and in his mid-30s, it wasn’t even on his radar.

Last year, he was running six to eight miles a day, lifting weights and eating healthy.

“I was in the best shape of my life,” says Brown, 36, of Sioux Falls.

“Overnight, I didn’t feel good.” And in September 2009, he went to the doctor.

After months of testing, blood work and an echocardiogram, the verdict was stress. Brown was advised to take it easy and gently get back to his workout regimen, but mainly to relax.

Still not feeling well by March, he went back to the doctor. “I was admitted to the hospital an hour later,” Brown says. He had developed a systemic streptococcal infection.

In Brown’s case, his elevated blood pressure was an indication that his heart wasn’t functioning normally. The aortic valve was not working, allowing blood to back-flush into the heart and wash into the lung. He would wake up at night struggling to breathe.

The infection made his symptoms worse.

If it had gone on much longer, he would have suffocated, Brown says.

He was on intravenous antibiotics for four weeks in the hospital. As soon as the infection cleared up, he was whisked into surgery, and the faulty valve was replaced.

Brown doesn’t need the long scar on his chest to remind him of what he almost lost. “I could have easily died,” he says. He takes a fistful of medications to prevent rejection of the valve every day and will for the rest of his life.

“I don’t take anything for granted. I’m all about eating healthy. I was always big on working out and eating right, but I’ve eliminated salt from my diet. I never watched that before.”

Protect yourself from hypertension, Stys says. Make friends with a sphygmomanometer - a blood pressure cuff - and stay on top of your blood pressure readings. Check it about once a month. Use the free checks offered at the grocery store, drug store and church.

“Preventative medicine is the best medicine, but it’s the toughest to implement.”

Reach reporter Dorene Weinstein at 331-2315.


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