The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Expert
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Q: I checked my blood pressure at the local pharmacy. The reading was 129/84 and said I am at risk. I am only 24 and consider myself very healthy. Should I be worried?
A: Young adults with even slightly above-normal blood pressure may be more likely to have heart problems later. So you do want to take action now. But at the same time you don’t need to worry.
For decades, high blood pressure (hypertension) has been defined as a blood pressure of 140/90 or higher. However, during the last 20 years, multiple long-term studies have shown that blood pressures higher than 120/80 are linked with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
That’s why we have the term prehypertension. It describes people with blood pressures between 120/80 and 139/89.
The results of a recent study suggest that prehypertension begins to influence heart function earlier in life than previously shown. The researchers looked at a large group of men and women, ages 18 to 30. During the next 25 years, those with pre-hypertension were more likely to develop signs of heart disease.
Prehypertension is not a disease. It only means you are more likely to develop high blood pressure in future years.
To help prevent this, begin making lifestyle changes now. You can decrease the risk that your blood pressure will rise with age. And that means a lower chance of heart problems and stroke later on.
First, if you smoke, quitting is the top priority.
You hear it over and over, but diet and exercise do work. Strive to maintain a healthy weight. An easy way to help make that happen — drink water instead of sugary beverages.
Make vegetables and fruits half of every meal. Potatoes don’t count as a vegetable. The other half should contain healthy protein and whole-grain carbohydrates.
Reduce salt intake. Use a little less salt every day, and soon you will enjoy food just as much as before.
Stay physically active as much as you can all day. And get a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)