Emory Report

Feb. 22, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 21


A stealth disease, high blood pressure contributes mightily to cardiovascular conditions

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cardiovascular disease accounts for more than 40 percent of all deaths in the United States and is the nation's number one killer among both men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Georgia has one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the country and is located in the middle of the Southeastern "stroke belt."

Diseases of the heart and blood vessels are related to lifestyle and include coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and high blood pressure. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, about 60 million Americans have high blood pressure, including children and teenagers.

Blood pressure is the force blood exerts against arterial walls. Optimal blood pressure is defined as having a systolic pressure (top number) equal to or less than 120 mm Hg and a diastolic pressure (bottom number) equal to or less than 80 mm Hg, according to the Joint National Committee on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure. A mild form of high blood pressure is defined as having a systolic pressure of 140 mm and a diastolic pressure of 90 mm (140/90).

Elevated blood pressure makes the heart work harder than normal. Chronic high blood pressure leads to heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, eye damage, hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis) and plaque deposits of fat and cholesterol in the arteries (atherosclerosis).

The CDC has listed the three major risk factors for cardiovascular disease as tobacco use, insufficient physical activity and poor nutrition. Cigarettes contain the stimulant nicotine, which has been shown to raise blood pressure. Smoking also damages the lining of artery walls and contributes to the development of atherosclerosis. A person with high blood pressure and/or atherosclerosis is much more likely to have a stroke, the country's third leading cause of death.

According to 1996 data, the CDC reported Georgia had the highest percentage of adults in the country with no leisure-time physical activity (51 percent), and only 41 percent of Georgia high school students were enrolled in a physical education class. Regular and moderate physical activity contributes to maintaining optimal blood pressure.

The body requires only 200 mg of sodium each day. The American Heart Association recommends a dietary intake of no more than 2,000 mg of sodium per day, but the average American consumes 4,000-5,000 mg of sodium a day, mostly through convenience and packaged foods. A high-sodium food product is one that contains 500 mg or more of sodium per serving. People who are sodium sensitive can reduce their blood pressure by reducing salt intake.

High blood pressure is dangerous but is one of the easiest conditions to screen. There are blood pressure testing machines in many grocery and drug stores. Some health clinics will provide a blood pressure check on a walk-in basis. Recent studies have shown that blood pressure can be lowered and controlled through a healthy diet. Not smoking, getting sufficient physical activity and eating a healthy diet can help prevent high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases.

For more information on high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases, visit the following web sites:

  • American Heart Association at <www.amhrt.org>
  • National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at <www.cdc.gov/needphp>
  • Healthy Heart Diet at <www.sln.fi.edu/biosci/healthy/ diet.html>

Susan Butler is an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education in the School of Public Health. Her academic interests include health promotion and wellness.

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