Our lives are made up of important numbers. Phone numbers. Social Security numbers. Bank account numbers. Well, here are a few more -- your blood pressure and your cholesterol. Knowing these numbers can mean the difference between living a healthy life or facing serious illness, or even death.
"You should know your own blood pressure and cholesterol numbers," emphasizes Christine Bussey, MD, clinical director of nuclear cardiology at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax, Va. "The best customer is an educated one."
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Knowing the generally recommended guidelines for healthy numbers is the first step, says Michael D. Ozner, MD, president of the American Heart Association of Miami and author of The Miami Mediterranean Diet: Lose Weight and Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease.
For patients who fall into the "pre-hypertension" category, doctors first determine their risk factors -- do they have diabetes, or prior cardiovascular disease, or chronic kidney disease, for example. "For patients who are already high-risk, we're more strict, and we'll prescribe medication right away," says Ozner. For most people, however, the first step in getting blood pressure numbers under control is making lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking, beginning an exercise program, and managing stress.
Begin with a sensible nutrition program, Ozner recommends. Add fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products to your diet, while avoiding excess salt, caffeine, and alcohol. Also cut down -- way down -- on processed foods and hydrogenated oils. He recommends adding 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon (sprinkle on oatmeal, in applesauce, or in yogurt, for example), which is believed to lower blood pressure, as is pomegranate juice.
Exercise can help lower your blood pressure, and if you're overweight, can help you shed unwanted pounds (and lower weight often translates into lower blood pressure). "You don't need to go to a gym to get the exercise you need," says Ozner. "Just walking at least 30 minutes a day can have significant benefits."