Referred to as the “silent killer,” high blood pressure can affect anyone. But, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Institute on Aging, age is a common cause.
According to Courtney Catherine, admissions director at Landerbrook Transitional Care in Mayfield Heights, and Dr. David Gutman, founder of Cleveland Nutrition in Beachwood, high blood pressure in older individuals stems from many things, including lifestyle choices.
“High blood pressure does not occur overnight – it occurs because of prolonged damage to blood vessels,” Gutman explained. “Blood pressure increases because blood vessels get stiff. They’re supposed to be elastic and stretch out to accommodate blood when your heart pumps and recoils when your heart takes a break. You have to have elastic arteries for that to happen.”
But when they become stiff, Gutman said, they don’t dilate correctly, which is what causes blood pressure to rise. According to the American Heart Association, one has high blood pressure when the first number reads 130 or higher and the second is 80 or higher.
“This is because cholesterol plaque buildup in the arteries becomes calcified and stiff,” Gutman said. “That tends to take a while, and that’s why elderly individuals have (high blood pressure) more than young people.”
Catherine said lifestyle choices can add to one’s chances of developing high blood pressure.
“One of which is smoking,” she said. “Another is a diet high in salts. And a lot of times, if they have been eating a certain diet their whole life, it’s harder to change when they’re 75 or 80 years old. Other chronic conditions can cause high blood pressure as well, such as a kidney or hormone problem, as well as general family history.”
When someone is experiencing high blood pressure, Gutman said it generally goes unnoticed since there aren’t any major symptoms.
“It causes damage to organs but it’s unrecognized until the tipping point,” he said. “But high blood pressure does increase the risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack, heart failure, heart arrhythmias, kidney failure, eye problems like blindness and even dementia.”
Catherine noted some physical symptoms may occur that one wouldn’t immediately associate with a blood pressure problem, like a pounding feeling in their chest, a feeling of lightheadedness or dizziness.
With a condition like high blood pressure, Catherine said it’s important to keep an eye on one’s health. That starts in knowing how to manage it.
“One thing we do when we are getting ready to discharge residents after therapy is make sure they are already on their blood pressure medications and that it’s good,” she said. “Also, if you’re able to have a blood pressure monitor at home, that’s great. But, if not, we can do free blood pressure checks when needed.”
Having an at-home monitor allows individuals to self check, Catherine said.
“You need to do it many times to establish a baseline and to get that average,” she explained.
Gutman also said medications are an important treatment option, but stressed the importance of keeping track of the side effects.
“Medications themselves have a lot of side effects that can be very serious,” he noted. “And most people have to be on many medications, so they have even more side effects. The reason is that pills aren’t addressing the underlying problem.”
In addition to medication, individuals should consider diet and exercise changes to help manage their blood pressure.
“Alongside medications, it would mean completely changing what you’re eating,” Gutman suggested. “If you’re still eating what you always have, the disease will progress no matter what pills you throw at it. Consider cutting out salt and reducing animal products.”
But for any health condition, management and recovery is not a straight line. It’s different for everyone, the professionals said.
“You’re not going to fix blood pressure problems overnight,” Catherine said. “It’s more of a journey. But if you believe you have high blood pressure, make an appointment with your doctor and get their opinion. It’s worth trying.”
Gutman noted, “(Changing your lifestyle) may come across as extreme, but that’s the challenge. You have to decide what is important to you. At the end of the day, (patients) have to make a decision. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but the more they can make the shift, the better the outcome will be.”