Hypertension, or elevated blood pressure, is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but it is also a risk factor for other health problems. When your blood pressure is too high, it places extra force on the walls of your blood vessels. Over time, this injures them. Blood vessels that carry blood to organs like your kidneys can become damaged and this can reduce kidney function. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can also damage blood vessels in other organs, like your brain. In fact, hypertension is linked with a greater risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
By now, you’re probably wondering how blood pressure changes with age and whether it’s inevitable that your pressure will eventually become too high. Hypertension can affect young people, but it’s far less common than it is in older adults. Let’s look at what happens to blood pressure as we grow older.
How Your Blood Pressure Changes with Age
As you’re probably aware, a blood pressure reading consists of two numbers. The systolic blood pressure, the top number on a blood pressure reading, is an indicator of the pressure on your blood vessels, called arteries when your heart is contracting. At one time, a systolic blood pressure of 140 or below was within the normal range, but a recent study found that tighter blood pressure control can prevent strokes and heart attacks. So, health care professionals now recommend keeping systolic blood pressure at 120 or below.
The diastolic, or lower number, is the force on the inner walls of the arteries between beats when the heart is relaxing. What’s considered optimal has changed here too. Health care professionals now want you to keep your diastolic blood pressure reading at or below 80. Previously, normal blood pressure was a diastolic blood pressure of 90 or lower. So, the guidelines have gotten stricter.
If either number is abnormal, it’s a cause for concern. Some people, particularly older adults, have isolated systolic hypertension, meaning their systolic blood pressure is high but the diastolic reading is not. After a recent study showed that tighter blood pressure control can prevent strokes and heart attacks, what’s considered “normal” has changed. The goal is to keep diastolic blood pressure below 80. In fact, isolated systolic hypertension is the most common type of high blood pressure in people over the age of 50.
People who are genetically predisposed to hypertension often have an elevated systolic and diastolic blood pressure, but with age, the systolic blood pressure may continue to rise while the diastolic stays the same or even drops slightly. So, some older adults with hypertension transition with age to isolated systolic hypertension.
Are you destined to experience a rise in blood pressure as you age? Studies such as the Framingham Heart Study that followed healthy adults for 30 years revealed that systolic blood pressure gradually rises between the ages of 30 and 84. Why does systolic blood pressure go up with age? As the years’ pass, arteries, blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart, become stiffer and less flexible. Because they have less “give,” the heart has to pump harder to push the blood through the vessel. Isolated systolic hypertension, where only the systolic blood pressure is high, is more common in older women than older men. Men and women with diabetes are also at greater risk of developing systolic hypertension.
The Dangers of Systolic Hypertension
You might wonder how a high systolic blood pressure increases the risk of health problems and what kinds of problems it can cause. The increased pressure on the inner wall of the arteries creates small tears in the wall. The body wants to repair those tears, so the immune system sends its team of warriors in to repair the damage. This leads to chronic inflammation and the accumulation of LDL-cholesterol in the walls. As cholesterol builds up, it further narrows the blood vessel. It’s a vicious cycle, as now the heart has to beat with more force to push through the increasingly narrow arteries. So, systolic blood pressure rises even more. Plus, now that the artery walls are damaged, a clot is more likely to form and block the vessels. Blockage cuts off blood flow and can lead to a heart attack or stroke, depending upon the blood vessels blocked. It’s something we’d all like to avoid!
Can You Prevent Age-Related Hypertension?
It is clear that systolic blood pressure increases after the age of 30 up until a person’s mid-80s. One way to reduce an age-related rise in blood pressure is through physical activity. Studies show that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise helps reduce stiffness in the arteries that leads to an elevation in blood pressure. However, some studies in mice suggest that older people who exercise may not get the same degree of benefit as younger people. Therefore, you ideally want to begin exercising during middle age as opposed to waiting until you’re in your 70s or 80s. Yet, exercise offers health benefits, irrespective of age.
Other ways to help control your blood pressure as you age is to eat a healthy, whole-food diet rather than processed junk. Choose more potassium-rich fruits and vegetables and add more sources of magnesium to your diet, such as nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. Magnesium and potassium play a key role in heart health and blood pressure control. Avoid habits that raise blood pressure like smoking and excessive use of alcohol. Losing weight, if you’re overweight, can help too. Studies show that for every 20 pounds you lose systolic blood pressure drops between 5 and 20 points. That’s substantial!
Finally, monitor your blood pressure closely. Ideally, check it at home so you can get readings at various times of the day. Getting your pressure measured every 6 months or yearly at your regular wellness checks isn’t enough. Blood pressure can vary greatly based on the time of day and factors like when you last ate. Some people have a high blood pressure first thing in the morning. If so, you should know this because morning spikes in blood pressure are an independent risk factor for heart disease and premature mortality. Make sure you know how your blood pressure varies throughout the day, record the values, and show them to your physician.
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