How hard do you work in a day, and how do you measure that? For your heart, it comes down to two numbers: how forcefully the blood is pushed out when it pumps and when it rests. Otherwise known as your blood pressure. If you don’t know your numbers, you should. Because you won’t necessarily feel if your blood pressure is too high or low, it can be causing damage to your body without you even knowing it.
There are some well known and proven causes of high blood pressure, including excess weight, a sedentary lifestyle, older age and having African, South Asian or First Nations/Inuit or Metis heritage. But there are also some misconceptions about other causes and actually getting an accurate reading, says Sunnybrook cardiologist Dr. Martin Myers.
Getting an accurate reading
When it comes to the latter, he says we need to leave it to the machines. “The bottom line is that human beings should not be taking blood pressure. Period. Full stop.” People can skew the results by taking the measurements incorrectly, fudging the numbers that are documented or affecting the overall reading. Dr. Myers says talking is the most common culprit for a sudden spike in blood pressure. “Some people believe talking actually calms you down, but the opposite is true.” That means patients need to sit quietly – no talking or texting – before and during the measurement.
Canadian guidelines now recommend using automated blood pressure machines when testing is done at the doctor’s office. These devices take several readings and average out the results, helping buffer out the effects of nerves. Automated machines are also used if your doctor recommends at-home monitoring, or if you chose to check your blood pressure at the drug store.
“Canadian guidelines no longer recommend a stethoscope being used with a cuff on the patient’s arm and a doctor or nurse measuring the blood pressure,” says Dr. Myers. It’s still being done, but over the next few years, you’re going to see that disappear.”
High blood pressure myths
So what about other possible factors, like coffee, stress and noise pollution? Despite what many people think, Dr. Myers says regular coffee consumption is not considered to be a cause of high blood pressure. “The only time it will cause a small increase is if you don’t drink it for a day or two and then you have a large cup of coffee,” he says, noting that’s a far cry from most people’s daily habit.
He says the same goes for stress: while it may be a contributing factor, it’s not a cause of high blood pressure. Other factors, like noise pollution and hydro lines? “The properly done studies have been negative,” he says.
So how often do you need to have your blood pressured measured? If it’s normal – within the 120 over 80 range – and there are no other health issues at play, Dr. Myers says every one to two years is recommended. If you have high blood pressure already, measurements will need to take place more often and your doctor can advise about frequency.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation reports 1 in 6 Canadians with high blood pressure are unaware of their condition, and that’s risky. It’s can lead to stroke, dementia, coronary artery disease, kidney failure and a host of other health issues if left untreated. So the bottom line is this: know your numbers and follow your doctor’s recommendations for management and treatment. And for more information, check out the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Blood Pressure Action Plan.