Getty: Stockbyte

The best way to avoid the health risks associated with high blood pressure is to make sure your pressure stays at 120/80 or below. (Photo: Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Maintaining a healthy blood pressure is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is chronic and disproportionately high among black women. And while many people with high blood pressure control it with medication and assume that’s all they need, hypertension — even when treated — can increase your risk of heart disease; harm your kidneys, arteries and eyes; and contribute to dementia.

This makes lowering blood pressure and keeping it low a critical health issue for black women, especially at a time when 44.5 percent of us older than age 20 have the disease. In some areas of the South, rates among black women are as high as 64 percent.

New Study Calls for Lower Pressure Rates

Last week, the National Institutes of Health reported that a landmark study (called SPRINT) of more than 9,000 people found that the current blood pressure guidelines are not aggressive enough and setting lower targets for blood pressure could be “potentially lifesaving information” for the public.

The researchers discovered that keeping systolic blood pressure (the top number in the reading) at 120, reduced rates of heart attack, heart failure and stroke by almost a third in the study group, compared with the currently recommended target pressure of 140 for people under age 60 and 150 for seniors.

Using a healthy blood pressure target of 120 also reduced death rates among the people studied by 25 percent.

“Our results provide important evidence that treating blood pressure to a lower goal can be beneficial and yield better health results overall,” said Lawrence Fine, M.D., chief of the Clinical Applications and Prevention Branch at the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “But patients should talk to their doctor to determine whether this lower goal is best for their individual care.”

For the study, the scientists randomly divided participants into two groups, one whose blood pressure was controlled to the current guidelines and another whose blood pressure was kept at 120 or slightly below.

Between 2010 and 2013, the standard group took an average of two different blood pressure medications to meet the recommended goal, while the intensive treatment group received an average of three medications to bring their blood pressure farther down.

The NIH expected to wrap up the study in 2017, but ended it early when officials concluded the results were too important and too positive to delay sharing the news with the public and physicians.

Lowering Your Own Pressure

The SPRINT trial only dealt with people taking medication to lower blood pressure to the desired rates, but blood pressure medications are sometimes less effective in black women and men and, like all drugs, they cause side effects.

The best way to avoid the health risks associated with high blood pressure is to make sure your pressure stays at 120/80 or below without medication. Always work with your doctor to consistently check your pressure, and take medication if you need it. Here are few ways to keep your pressure down on your own:

  1. Lose weight. Dropping just 10 percent of your body weight may be enough to keep you off medication.
  2. Work out. Busting a sweat at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week lowers blood pressure, but you have to stick with it.
  3. Shake the salt. In general, African Americans are more sensitive to salt. Some experts think this may be a legacy of slavery. People more sensitive to salt were less likely to become dehydrated and die on slave ships. To protect yourself, follow the American Heart Association recommendation of less than 1,500 mg of salt daily by reading labels, cooking with herbs and spices instead of salt, and taking the shaker off your table.
  4. Go easy on the alcohol. That extra cocktail can raise your blood pressure. Stick with one drink a day or less.
  5. Manage stress. Life is full of anxiety-producing situations. The trick is to learn to manage your response to stress. When your body launches the stress response sequence, your blood pressure rises rapidly. Try these tips for staying calm under pressure.


The Perfect Night’s Sleep

A new study of more than 47,000 people says seven hours of sleep is the amount needed to protect heart health. People who slept a lot more than seven hours, or a lot less, had damaged arteries,