If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, aka hypertension, you're not alone: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 116 million American adults (47 percent!) have hypertension, and only around 24 percent of those people are successfully managing it. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease and strke, and contributed to more than 670,000 deaths in the United States in 2020 alone. And now, a new study recently presented at the American Heart Association's Hypertension Scientific Sessions 2022 estimates that 8.8 million Americans between the ages of 35 and 64 have untreated stage 1 hypertension.
At the same time, the researchers behind the study found that making certain lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of heart issues for those with hypertension. While physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and not drinking an excessive amount of alcohol were all key, the most important factor was using the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. In a simulation conducted by the researchers, they noted that these changes could help to lower blood pressure and ultimately prevent 26,000 heart attacks and strokes in those with stage 1 hypertension over the next 10 years.
"These findings are so important, as chronic high blood pressure is known as a silent killer," Dr. Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, LDN, FAND, a nutrition professor at Boston University and the host of the award-winning nutrition and health podcast, Spot On!, tells Eat This, Not That! "A person may feel just fine, but chronically high blood pressure is problematic."
"Individuals with chronic high blood pressure have a higher-than-normal force pounding against the walls of their arteries, which makes the walls thicker and stiffer, and contributes to atherosclerosis," Blake says. Because of this, "the heart becomes enlarged and weakened, as it has to work harder to pump enough oxygen- and nutrient-laden blood throughout the body." Blake explains that "this can lead to fatigue shortness of breath, and possible heart attack." On top of that, "Hypertension can also damage the arteries leading to the brain, which increase the risk of stroke."
As for the DASH diet, Blake explains that it "is a well-balanced eating plan that is high in veggies, fruits, grains, particularly whole grains, along with low-fat dairy foods, lean protein sources, beans, nuts, and seeds, healthy unsaturated vegetable oils, and less sweets and treats." Beyond that, Blakes notes that "when the sodium is reduced in the diet, the DASH Diet can have an even more pronounced effect."
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"This type of diet is rich in potassium, magnesium, and calcium, which all can play a role in lowering blood pressure. However, the blood pressure-lowering effect is likely due to a combination of nutrients and compounds in the diet, working together," Blake says. "It's like the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The First Violinist can perform a wonderful solo, but along with the entire orchestra, the effect is more spectacular."