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    High Blood Pressure: The Invisible Health Risk

    It has no symptoms, but kills 50,000 Americans a year.

    Change Your Blood Pressure, Change Your Life

    We don't know exactly what causes high blood pressure, although we do know that family history plays a role. You can't do anything about your genes, or about getting older, or about being black -- all added risk factors for hypertension (hypertension affects about 40% of the black population, and it's more likely to show up earlier in life and be more severe than in whites). But you're also not doing yourself any favors if your pantry is stocked with potato chips and other salty treats, if you drink too much alcohol, and if the last time you worked up a sweat was in anticipation of the Survivor finale.

    The good news: all that can be changed. One of the best ways to control hypertension is -- surprise! -- with healthy diet and exercise, the same things that help to prevent so many other diseases and disorders.

    The gold standard of hypertension eating plans is the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), endorsed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and clinically proven to reduce blood pressure. This low-fat diet calls for:

    • 7-8 servings a day of high-fiber grains
    • 4-5 servings a day of fruits
    • 4-5 servings a day of vegetables
    • 3 servings a day of low-fat dairy
    • 2 or fewer servings a day of meat, poultry, or fish
    • 4-5 servings a week of beans, nuts, or seeds

    Another diet -- DASH-Sodium -- calls for reducing salt to 1,500 mg a day (about 2/3 teaspoon). Both diets help people lower their blood pressure, but studies indicate that the DASH-Sodium plan lowers blood pressure the most.

    The American Heart Association reports that blood pressure can fall significantly after only 12 weeks of either a 1,200-calorie diet or an hour a day of aerobic exercise. Indeed, they report that in recent studies, aerobic exercise alone reduces both weight and blood pressure more effectively than diet alone. But your best bet: Improve your activity level and your eating habits. Even if you don't have high blood pressure now, healthy habits today will help prevent hypertension tomorrow.

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