As many as one in three adults in the UK has high blood pressure, yet many are completely unaware that they have a problem.
So it’s little wonder this very common medical complaint – also known as hypertension – is often dubbed “the silent killer”.
Left untreated, it raises the risk of potentially fatal heart attacks and strokes and can also cause severe damage to the kidneys.
Some people may suffer headaches when their readings creep ever higher. But for millions, this deadly condition can remain hidden until it is picked up through routine checks or results in a medical emergency.
Many could significantly reduce their risk of health problems by making simple changes to their diet and lifestyle, experts say.
In the latest in the Your Health in Your Hands series, we look at what causes high blood pressure and the simple steps anyone can take to protect themselves against it.
Blood pressure is a measure of the force exerted on the walls of the arteries by blood flow. The higher the pressure, the harder the heart has to work to pump blood, putting it under added strain.
High blood pressure – or hypertension – is a reading above 140/90.
The increased pressure also damages blood vessel walls, so they’re prone to forming clots, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
“The higher your blood pressure, the harder the heart has to work to pump blood round the body,” says Professor Naveed Sattar from Glasgow University’s Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences.
“Like any muscle, if the heart gets constantly overworked like this, it can become enlarged – leading to heart failure.”
Heart failure occurs when the cardiac muscle, worn out by the extra workload, becomes weak and floppy instead of strong and firm. It damages circulation and causes swelling of the limbs, breathlessness and fatigue. In the very worst cases, patients can end up on the waiting list for a heart transplant.
Some people are genetically prone to high blood pressure, while others still get it despite living a healthy lifestyle.
But fatty, salty diets, too little exercise, stress, smoking and excess alcohol are the main contributory factors. Salt is a major problem because too much interferes with the ability of the kidneys to filter out excess water from the body. This fluid then circulates in the bloodstream, putting blood vessels – and therefore the heart – under increased pressure.
But avoiding excess salt is not easy, as most of what we consume is already added to processed foods.
However, Prof Sattar says adopting a healthy lifestyle from an early age can make a significant difference to cardiac risk later.
“Having lower blood pressure from a young age and maintaining that can protect against heart attacks and strokes. That means being active, eating fewer salty foods, cutting down on booze and maintaining a healthy weight.”
HOW SALTY ARE YOUR FAVOURITE FOODS?
NHS guidance says adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day and young children just 2g. But how much salt is in our everyday foods?
Two rashers of bacon 2.25g
Vegetable stock cube 2g
Vegetarian pizza (7in) 1.5g
Baked bean portion (200g) 1.4g
Spoonful of soy sauce 1g
Portion of bran cereal (30g) 0.5g
Dollop of ketchup 0.5g
Bag ready salted crisps 0.5g
Slice of granary bread 0.5g
Chocolate digestive 0.2g
Source: British Heart Foundation
Healthy low-salt recipes that are good for the heart
Linguine with leeks and mushrooms
Serves two to three.
Cooking time: 20 mins
250g leeks, washed and sliced
140g button mushrooms, sliced
1 bay leaf
20g sunflower spread
20g plain flour
250ml semi-skimmed milk
1 tbsp fresh chives, snipped
Freshly ground black pepper
200g fresh linguine
1 Steam the leeks and mushrooms with the bay leaf over a pan of boiling water for 10-15 minutes then drain and remove the bay leaf.
2 Melt the sunflower spread in a non-stick pan, add the flour and stir, cooking gently for one minute. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually whisk in the milk before bringing to the boil until thickened. Add the steamed veg, chives and black pepper.
3 Cook the pasta until it’s firm to bite, drain and add the leek and mushroom sauce.
Oven-baked fish with potato wedges
Cooking time: 40 mins
400g medium-sized potatoes
2 tsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
25g fresh breadcrumbs
1 tsp lemon zest, finely grated
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
2 thick white fish fillets
12 cherry tomatoes
2 tsp olive oil
200g frozen peas
Fresh mint, chopped
1 Preheat oven to 220C (Fan 200C/Gas Mark 7). Cut each potato into eight even wedges and pat dry. Place in a bowl, add the olive oil and black pepper, mix well to coat.
2 Spread the wedges on a shallow, non-stick roasting tin and bake in the oven for 40 minutes – turning once or twice.
3 For the fish, combine the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, parsley and black pepper. Spoon the mixture over the top of the fish fillets. Put the fish in a separate non-stick tin with the cherry tomatoes alongside. Drizzle olive oil over the fish and bake in the oven for the last 10 minutes of the wedges’ cooking time.
4 Meanwhile, cook the peas in boiling water for three minutes before crushing them lightly and adding the chopped mint and more black pepper.
Thai turkey stir-fry
Cooking time: 13 mins
1 tsp cornflour
4 tbsp water
1 tbsp low salt soy sauce
2-3 tbsp Thai fish sauce
2-3 tbsp sunflower oil
1 small red onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1cm piece root ginger, chopped
1 red chilli, chopped and deseeded
175g skinless, boneless turkey breast strips
1 tsp hot chilli powder
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped
1 small courgette, cut into matchsticks
1-2 tbsp coriander, chopped
360g cooked rice
1 Mix the cornflour and water in a bowl and add the soy and fish sauce.
2 Heat the sunflower oil in a wok. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and chilli. Fry for 1 minute then add turkey and chilli and stir for 4 minutes.
3 Add the red pepper and courgette, fry for 2 minutes. Add the beansprouts for 1-2 minutes or until the veg is softened and the turkey is cooked.
4 Add the cornflour mix to thicken for 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat, add a squeeze of lime and the chopped coriander. Serve with rice.
I was fit and healthy – but my blood pressure was sky-high
Cameron Elliott was in his late 40s and living an ultra-healthy lifestyle when a routine blood pressure check gave a shocking result.
It showed a reading of 200/100 – and doctors warned he was at high risk of a heart attack
“I was really fit and healthy,” says Cameron, 51, from Truro, Cornwall.
“I had recently run a half marathon, would do a couple of 10k runs every week and was only having health checks because I had injured my shoulder climbing one of Europe’s highest mountains.”
Doctors warned his blood pressure was so high that it was not safe to go ahead with the surgery and he was told to see his GP, who told him to cut down on salt and take prescription medicines.
Instead, he bought an over-the-counter blood pressure monitor and downloaded an app to pinpoint what was causing the problem.
Over the next few weeks, he realised his readings soared whenever he got stressed or was lacking proper sleep.
“I was going through a divorce, one of my businesses was struggling and, to make matters worse, I have always been a bit of night owl, often getting to sleep at around 2am.”
Cameron began to learn deep breathing techniques, which he would practise through the day or whenever he felt his stress levels rising and changed his sleeping habits so he was in bed early most nights.
“By the end of the month, my blood pressure was down to a healthy 120/80. I went back to my GP who said the drugs were obviously working.
“He was very surprised when I said I never even collected them.”
Now Cameron, who works in data analytics, has used his experience to develop a new app – called BP Owl (BPowl.com, £89.99 for a year’s subscription) – which can identify the root cause of a patient’s high blood pressure within a few weeks, whether it’s a salty diet, the side effects of other pills or stress, then gives tips on drug-free ways to combat them such as deep-breathing exercises.