High blood pressure and how you can bring yours down to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke

A doctor checks the blood pressure of a patient.
A doctor checks the blood pressure of a patient.

High blood pressure is the single biggest cause of premature death in the world, responsible for 60% of all strokes and kidney failure, 40% of heart attacks, and it increases your risk of Alzheimer’s by 50%.

Worryingly, more than five million British adults with high blood pressure - or hypertension - are completely unaware they’ve even got it, while only 15-20 % who are aware of it have it under control.

So, the first step is to have regular checks with your GP or practice nurse – especially if there’s a family history of high blood pressure, you’re overweight, or over 40.

The trouble with hypertension is that it’s rare to experience any symptoms, so it’s better to be aware early than wait until it’s too late.

The first number in a blood pressure reading is the systolic measurement, which is the pressure of blood against your artery walls when the heart has just finished pumping.

The second number is your diastolic measurement, which is the pressure of blood against artery walls between heartbeats.

Generally, the second figure, diastolic, is the main indicator of health, but the two figures are intrinsically linked.

If you’re a fit and healthy 20-40-year-old, 120/80 is a healthy reading – for those 40-60, 135/90 means your blood pressure is in a good range.

Anything over 140/90 can signify hypertension and could be cause for concern.

The good news is that if your blood pressure’s high, it can often be lowered by making simple changes to your lifestyle.

Changing your diet is perhaps the easiest one – get rid of your salt shaker, ditch ready meals and takeaways, and load up on fresh fruit and vegetables to up your potassium intake.

Quitting smoking can be hard, but it really will make a huge difference to your blood pressure – amongst other health benefits.

Upping exercise, even just taking regular short walks or using the stairs instead of the lift, can make a big positive impact, all of which should also help improve your sleep quality and again help lower high blood pressure.

If you’ve adopted these lifestyle changes but still see little or no improvement, your GP should be able to help with medication.

Drugs include diuretics which increase the amount of water and salt removed from the blood by the kidneys and widen the arteries; betablockers which lower the load on the heart by reducing the pulse rate; ACE inhibitors which block chemicals that constrict the blood vessels; and calcium channel blockers that help widen blood vessels.

Whatever you’re prescribed, Pharmacy2U can provide free, convenient delivery of any prescription medication.

You may need regular check-ups to make sure you aren't getting serious side effects, such as diabetes or high levels of potassium in your blood.

If you are getting side effects, tell your doctor who might give you a different type of medicine, or a lower dose. Do not stop taking the medicines without talking to your doctor.

The good news is that the effects of high blood pressure don’t happen overnight. They usually take many years to develop.

And if you control your high blood pressure, you can reduce the chances that they will ever happen.

* Dr. Alexandra Phelan is a GP with the NHS and Pharmacy2U, an online service which provides free, fast and convenient delivery of NHS repeat prescriptions.