With one in three suffering from high blood pressure in the US, the condition is putting us at risk from heart disease and strokes which account for almost half the current US mortality rate. And, while there are some factors which are out of our control including our age, race and sex as well as our genetic make-up, there are ways we can reduce our risk of developing blood pressure.

The most important modern-day lifestyle factors that influence high blood pressure are cigarette smoking, obesity, a diet high in salt and physical inactivity.

Cigarette smoking is a big factor influencing blood pressure since it injures the blood vessel walls and speeds up the hardening of the arteries. It is not linked directly to hypertension but the plaque that builds up on the artery walls means the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body. This increased workload increases the force on the artery walls. Blood pressure does rise temporarily after smoking but doesn’t keep it high, it’s the consistent use of cigarettes that eventually take their toll. Giving up smoking is therefore one of the most sensible lifestyle changes you can make to avoid and reduce hypertension.

Obesity and its effect on blood pressure has been much studied, and researchers have established a link between them. It’s believed that obesity increases cardiac output and blood volume as well as induces the production of insulin. Insulin causes blood vessels to thicken, increasing their rigidity and increasing blood pressure. Being overweight also brings about a reabsorption of water and salt by the kidneys increasing blood volume and blood pressure. Also, being obese causes the body to become more sensitive to sodium, a factor known to constrict the arteries – leading to high BP.

Too much salt in the diet can increase blood pressure and put us at risk of heart attacks and strokes. Salt intake has become more of a problem over recent years due to the rise in processed foods which often contain high levels of sodium. Opting for fresh fruit and vegetable and avoiding processed foods is a good way to reduce salt consumption. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) in 2010 recommend reducing salt intake to under 2,300 mg a day. If you suffer from high blood pressure already it’s recommended to reduce intake to less than 1,500 mg per day, a guideline which also applies to people with kidney disease and diabetes.

Physical inactivity and blood pressure are inextricably linked so in order to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease it’s essential to get more exercise. More and more people fail to get even a moderate level of physical activity during a typical week – in the UK it’s estimated that fewer than 7 out of 10 women and 6 out of 10 men get enough to experience health benefits. Exercise halves the risk of developing heart disease, keeping the heart working normally so that it can pump blood efficiently and keep blood pressure regulated.

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