Lowering your blood pressure isn't always as simple as eating fewer high-sodium foods. The fact is that multiple factors combined affect your blood pressure. There are two main categories of risks that contribute to hypertension—those that you can't change, and those that you can.
Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories.
Although these factors are out of your control, there are several lifestyle habits that you CAN change to help lower your blood pressure.
- Your age. Your risk of developing high blood pressure increases as you age. Men over 45 and women over 55 are more likely to have high blood pressure.
- Your gender. Up to age 55, men are more prone to high blood pressure than women. After menopause, a woman's risk increases. By age 75, high blood pressure is more prevalent among women than men. Women who take oral contraceptives are also at a higher risk for hypertension.
- Your family history. Your risk doubles if one or both of your parents had high blood pressure.
- Your race. In the U.S., African Americans (especially women) are more likely to develop high blood pressure, along with other minorities (Hispanics, American Indians and Alaskan natives).
Controllable Risk Factors
Factors that you can control are related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and whether or not to exercise. These are areas of your life where you can take control to improve your blood pressure and enhance your overall health.
When you have other existing health conditions, you are compounding your risk of serious complications and disease if you don't lower your blood pressure. Add high risk factors into the picture (family history, age, and race) and your risk is compounded even more. The good thing is that you can break that chain of progressive disease at any point by changing the lifestyle choices above.
- Your diet. A diet high in sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol, and low in fiber, whole foods, and minerals (potassium, magnesium, calcium) can increase blood pressure. Eating a low-sodium, low-fat diet that is rich in whole foods and other nutrients can help.
- Your activity level. Sedentary individuals have a higher risk for hypertension. Regular exercise can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
- Your weight. Being obese (a Body Mass Index over 30) increases your risk of developing high blood pressure. Dropping just 10% of your body weight can have positive effects on blood pressure.
- Your stress levels. Studies show that chronic stress (and "Type A" personality traits) can elevate blood pressure. Exercise, meditation, and yoga can help reduce and manage stress and blood pressure.
- Your drinking habits. Moderate to heavy drinking (more than 1-2 drinks daily) can dramatically increase blood pressure and other health risks. Health experts recommend no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks per day for men.
- Your smoking habits. Smoking is the leading preventable cause of heart disease, due to its effects on your arteries, heart, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Quitting can stop (and potentially reverse) a lot of the existing damage to your body, and improve your blood pressure.
Controlling your blood pressure can help improve your health by reducing your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other serious health problems. You should work closely with your doctor to develop a plan that is safe and effective for you. These plans usually involve some combination of dietary changes, regular exercise, medication, and weight loss.