Hypertension: What you need to know about high blood pressure and how to manage it

Addressing lifestyle measures can help reduce the risk of stroke or heart strain

1) What exactly is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the measurement of how strongly blood presses against the walls of your arteries as it is pumped around your body by your heart. High blood pressure occurs when your heart has to work harder to pump this blood around the body. Blood pressure has two numbers – the top number (systolic pressure) which is the pressure of the blood when your heart beats to pump blood out and the bottom number (diastolic pressure) is the pressure of the blood when your heart rests in between beats. A blood pressure reading of between 120/80 mmHg (millimetres of mercury) and 140/90 is normal. Consistent readings of more than 140/90 mmHg is considered to be high.

2) How do I know that I have high blood pressure?
Without testing for it, you won't know that you have high blood pressure. It is estimated that about one in four people have high blood pressure, which is also known as hypertension. Up to 50 per cent of people over 50 have high blood pressure, two-third of whom either don't know they have it or don't make an effort to control it. Adults over 40 should have their blood pressure checked every five years. Those over 50 or anyone at increased risk of high blood pressure should have their blood pressure checked annually.

3) What are the risks of high blood pressure?
High blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke, and heart attacks because it puts a strain on your heart by causing your heart muscle to weaken. If you are overweight, have a relative with high blood pressure, eat a lot of salt, drink a lot of alcohol, don't exercise or eat healthily, you are more at risk of having high blood pressure and should have more frequent checks. One in 10 cases of high blood pressure is the result of an underlying condition such as diabetes, kidney disease, lupus or overuse of certain medications.

4) What should I do if I have been diagnosed with high blood pressure?
The first thing you should do is address all the above lifestyle issues. Your heart is a muscle like any others that needs to be kept in shape. So, don't be overweight, eat fresh unprocessed foods (and reduce salt intake), drink plenty of water, exercise regularly, manage your stress, get enough sleep, don't smoke or don't drink alcoholic or caffeinated drinks in excess.


5) What other measures can I take?
If you still have high blood pressure after addressing all the above lifestyle measures, your GP will prescribe medication that lowers your blood pressure. These medications can have side effects and will need to be regularly monitored by your GP in tandem with ongoing monitoring of your blood pressure.

The Irish Heart Foundation give free blood-pressure checks in mobile health units. You can also get your blood pressure checked as part of overall health checks with your GP. Primary care centres and pharmacists also offer blood pressure monitoring with 24-hour home kits to get a more accurate reading of blood pressure over time. See the HSE fact sheet on blood pressure. myBP.ie is a website offering advice on lowering blood pressure.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment