High blood pressure's hold on America

Thursday, July 21, 2005

I'm mad as hell and I'm not taking it anymore.

You probably think I'm talking about the newly anointed Dr. Tom Cruise and his recent public displays that seem hellbent upon proving the actual necessity for psychiatric treatment.

What I am really talking about is hypertension or, as it is known in some circles, high blood pressure.

There is a lot to hate about this one. Here are my top four:

First of all, it's sneaky. It can appear in your life like a stealth bomber. There are rarely any symptoms to announce it and by the time they do appear, it has already done serious damage. No doubt, that is why it is often referred to as the "silent killer."

Secondly, it is a nasty little sneak. It can form a slippery slope to heart disease (our No. 1 killer), stroke, kidney disease, eye damage, hardening of the arteries, damaged brain arteries and everyone's favorite, premature death.

Third, studies point to high blood pressure as a real boost for Viagra sales. Men with hypertension and prehypertension more than double their risk of developing the dreaded ED, erectile dysfunction.

First on my hate list is this: I have it. Recently, I waltzed into my annual physical feeling cocky (after all, I am the Healthspan columnist) only to be told by my well-meaning doc that I have just moved into the at-risk category. (Maybe I really should stop watching those mesmerizing news clips of Tom Cruise jumping on couches and crowing like a rooster.)

I'm not alone. Hypertension affects a quarter of American adults, and two years ago, the number of us whose health is at risk due to high blood pressure just doubled.

The reason for that is the maestros of hypertension issued a report (JNC 7) declaring that the numbers needed to be lowered in order to more accurately indicate the condition's true impact on our health.

A blood pressure reading of 140 over 90 used to be considered normal. Now it is considered dangerous. "Normal" has now moved south to 120/80. Everything in between is now diagnosed as "prehypertension" and considered by many in the medical profession as a red flag if not a downright health problem.

The latest thinking is that our risk for bad things happening to us rises as our blood pressure rises, even, according to some experts, when it is in the "normal" range. Studies show that it doubles for those with prehypertension and quadruples for those in full blown hypertension.

The exact causes of hypertension are unknown, although it is certain that blood pressure increases with age. When you reach the golden age of 65, two-thirds will qualify for the diagnosis of hypertension. Lifestyle factors do play a big part. Being obese, a human slug, a lush or a salt junkie can contribute to the condition.

The hypertension medicine that are available -- diuretics, beta blockers, or calcium channel blockers -- all have their nasty side effects. Most physicians will prescribe lifestyle changes for prehypertensive patients and even for those with full hypertension prior to trying meds.

One thing is for sure, I need to stop wasting time (and increasing my numbers) hating hypertension and get off my duff and do something about it. Next week, I will take a look at changes we can all make to bring down those numbers.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@ semissourian.com.

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