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High Blood Pressure Is the Silent Killer

Millions of Americans have hypertension, but many don't even know they have it

6. Is there a diet for hypertension?

Many doctors recommend the DASH diet — Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Along with controlling salt, it provides a basic, healthy eating plan with fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products and fatty fish such as salmon.

"The combination of a DASH diet with increased fruits and vegetables, along with regular physical activity, can lower blood pressure by 10 to 12 points," says Steven L. Kopecky, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic's Division of Cardiovascular Diseases.

7. Does alcohol affect my blood pressure? What about caffeine?

"Having a drink often lowers blood pressure temporarily, so people should not deny themselves a drink because they have hypertension," says Mann of New York-Presbyterian. But, he adds, "excessive drinking can contribute to hypertension."

As for caffeine: "Research shows caffeine's effect on blood pressure varies from person to person. If you metabolize caffeine quickly, it has no effect on your blood pressure. But if you metabolize it slowly, it can raise blood pressure. If you want to know if it affects your blood pressure, check your pressure after consuming caffeine and you'll know."

8. Which exercises lower blood pressure?

A new study in the journal Hypertension reviewed more than 1,000 studies and found that aerobic exercise, strength training and even isometric hand-grip exercises can reduce systolic blood pressure by two to 10 points. Surprisingly, four weeks of isometric hand-grip exercises, such as squeezing a small ball or athletic gripper, produced some of the most impressive improvements — a 10 percent drop in systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise—any activity that increases the heart rate and breathing, including gardening, walking and swimming — every day. Try to add strength training three times a week for 20 minutes, says Robert D. Brook, M.D., of the University of Michigan, the study's lead author.

Brook also recommends 12 to 15 minutes of isometric exercises such as hand-grip exercises three to five times per week.

9. What's the best way to check my blood pressure on my own?

A manual blood pressure monitor, the least expensive, includes an inflatable arm cuff, a gauge for readings and a stethoscope. A digital cuff monitor inflates and deflates automatically and calculates blood pressure. You'll also find digital monitors for wrist or finger — but they generally aren't recommended.

A digital cuff is easier to manage than a manual cuff, and users will get more accurate readings, says Mann. Make sure the cuff is properly positioned on the arm. Relax, with your arm supported on a table, when you take readings.

For accuracy, take a couple of readings — wait five minutes between them — and average them. Digital arm cuffs cost from $25 to more than $100, depending on features.

10. If I have to take blood pressure drugs, do they have side effects?

Different categories of medications can produce different side effects, including fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, dry mouth, more frequent urination and even a cough. Work with your doctor to find the right medication.

11. If I get my blood pressure under control, can I reverse the damage?

"We don't know about 'reversing' damage — it depends upon the extent of it — but you can at the very least prevent and reduce further progression" of the damage, says Thomas of the Cleveland Clinic.

Stephanie Stephens is a freelance writer in Orange County, Calif.

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VIDEO EXTRA

PREVENT HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE: Learn more about the risks, causes and how you can avoid getting hypertension. So many people are not aware they have it; that's why it's known as a "silent killer."

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