Prevention: Making Lifestyle Changes

As we age, our risk for hypertension rises. By age 75, about 41 percent of men and 54 percent of woman have high blood pressure. That’s why preventing the disease is so important.

The first step is to follow a healthy diet. For years doctors have been telling patients to eat more fruits and vegetables and cut back on fats. But controversy has always surrounded the potential effects of dietary salt on blood pressure control.  Now several new studies find that eating less salt can lead to substantial drops in blood pressure, while too much salt can put people at increased risk for death.

In a study published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, people with high blood pressure who ate a daily diet containing 1,500mg. of sodium had an average systolic pressure reading 11.5 mm Hg lower than participants eating a typical U.S. diet, containing 3,300 mg. of salt. In patients without high blood pressure was 7.1mm Hg.

“The magnitude of the effect was quite astounding,” says Dr. Eva Obarzanek, project office of the DASH-Sodium study for the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. “We know that lowering salt prevents the development of hypertension in people who are at risk. If you have a lifelong exposure to high salt, we’re expecting that will [result in] hypertension.”

Obarzanek admits it is hard to eat a low-salt diet because of the food choices available today. But she says maintaining the current recommended maximum level of 2,400 mg. of salt a day – which equals about one teaspoon – is possible. People can lower their salt intake by following a diet similar to the DASH diet, which is low in saturated fats and cholesterol and emphasizes fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods. Obarzanek says people should avoid highly processed and highly salted foods. Read labels, choose foods with no salt added, and don’t add salt when cooking. “It takes a while,” she says, “to…adapt your taste buds and move on.”

Other lifestyle factors make a difference as well. Obarzanek says be sure to get plenty of physical activity, limit alcohol intake (one drink a day if you’re a female, two if you’re a male), dont smoke, m aintain an ideal body weight, reduce stress and tension. “It’s a massive disease,’ she says. “You want to prevent it.”
-Debbie Geiger