As we age, all sorts of questions about our health become more important: Should I be concerned about high blood pressure? How do I know if I have it? Am I at risk for a stroke? What about a heart attack? And what the heck is high blood pressure, anyway?
Lifestyle habits and genetic history may play a role in addressing these fears, as well as assessing how at-risk you or a loved one may be for high blood pressure. Regardless, it’s crucial to regularly monitor blood pressure beginning sooner, rather than later. Doing so can help prevent high blood pressure from snowballing into a far more serious condition.
What Causes High Blood Pressure in Elderly Adults?
When it comes to high blood pressure in seniors, there is very little concrete evidence as to why this condition occurs. According to a study published via the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the reasons and causes for high blood pressure in the elderly are unknown in 95% of all cases. One theory is that high blood pressure is the product of old-age-induced, naturally narrowing arteries that harden as blood becomes increasingly voluminous. Since high blood pressure has become a staple of health woes in the elderly and very elderly, regular readings are necessary to monitor any adverse effects of changing blood pressure. Your primary care provider may ask you to report the readings to him/her, or even come in periodically for your blood pressure to be checked.
As a rule, a reading of 140/90 mmHg or higher constitutes high blood pressure, with anything above 180 in the numerator putting you in the danger zone. Put simply, that “140” figure is representative of heightened “systolic” high blood pressure – or increased force of blood in the arteries as the heart beats.
More specifically, what are the causes of high systolic blood pressure elderly adults? Again, answers remain elusive here as well. There is no definitive conclusion, although according to the National Institute of Health, systolic high blood pressure is the most common type of high blood pressure in seniors. Sixty-five percent of hypertensives older than 60 are struck by isolated systolic high blood pressure, which means that the bottom figure of that 140/90 – diastolic pressure, or force of blood between heartbeats — doesn’t need to be elevated to be symptomatic of high blood pressure.
The Myth of Symptoms in High Blood Pressure
To make matters more confusing, symptoms of high blood pressure are equally as elusive as its causes. Just as there is no definitive cause of high blood pressure, there are no reliable, definitive symptoms, either. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) made it a point to debunk several common misconceptions surrounding the symptoms of high blood pressure:
- High blood pressure does not cause headaches. A Neurology study showed those with systolic blood pressure were actually less likely to have headaches. While medical researchers have not arrived at a definitive conclusion, they believe that higher pulse pressure is an indicator of stiffer blood vessels. As a result of these stiff blood vessels, nerve endings do not work properly and a person is less likely to feel pain.
- Nosebleeds are not an indicator of high blood pressure, either. The AHA notes that nosebleeds are likely a coincidence in persons with hypertension. However, nosebleeds may be a side effect of OTC and prescription blood thinners, such as ibuprofen or warfarin.
- Dizziness isn’t caused by hypertension, either. Rather, it may be a side effect of high blood pressure medications. The AHA does caution, however, that sudden dizziness and imbalance in coordination may be a warning sign of a stroke and require immediate attention.
Despite the fact that a person may not show warning signs of high blood pressure, the AHA points to some specific signs of hypertensive crisis, which stems from high blood pressure. Hypertensive crisis occurs when a person’s systolic pressure reaches 180 or above (the aforementioned danger zone) or their diastolic pressure hits 110 or higher. Some of the warning signs of hypertensive crisis include severe headaches, anxiety, shortness of breath and – yes, when at an extreme – nosebleeds.
Cause and Effect: The Effects of High Blood Pressure in Older Adults
Despite the lack of evidence about the causes of hypertension, the effects of high blood pressure in the elderly are both troubling and serious. To break it down into categories, high blood pressure can cause: a broken blood vessel in the brain, leading to stroke; a burst vessel in the eyes, consequently impairing vision; “stiff” arteries that strain the functions of not just the heart, but the kidneys; and, most toxically, congestive heart failure or a heart attack, effectively depriving the heart of oxygen-loaded blood that sustains the heart’s daily functions.
Preventing and Managing High Blood Pressure
Although older adults should be mindful, it’s not all doom and gloom in the world of high blood pressure in seniors. Preventive measures can be taken to stop high blood pressure from building into a larger health issue. Below are just a few simple, NIH-approved, proactive steps that can be taken by individuals who are concerned that they are at risk for high blood pressure.
- Nix the sodium. The current NIH recommendation is a meager one teaspoon of salt per day.
- Monitor your weight. Being overweight is an enormous factor in whether you’ll have high blood pressure, between an increased risk of diabetes and tendency for high cholesterol. Even a few pounds makes a difference.
- Drink less. Alcohol, that is. Alcohol is loaded with calories, which, of course, impacts body weight. Men should only have two drinks per day; women should only have one.
- Stop smoking. This is a no-brainer: Smoking damages blood vessels and hardens arteries.
- Exercise. Even a 30-minute, moderate-level routine makes a difference – bicycling, walking, etc.
A few small measures can make a world of difference when it comes to your health — and your blood pressure! Talk with your primary health care provider about both your concerns and actions you can take to lower your blood pressure. Work together to plan ways you can begin and sustain lifestyle changes to help prevent a health event that could shorten your lifespan.