In a 2015 survey of Australians conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2.6 million adults reported suffering from high blood pressure. A surprising 74% of individuals with measurable high blood pressure were ostensibly unaware.
In a more recent survey the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that 25% of males, and 20% of females were suffering from high blood pressure, with proportion increasing with increasing age.
So, what is ‘blood pressure’?
Blood pressure is a measure of the force blood exerts on arterial walls measured in milligrams of mercury (mmHg). Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers (eg 120/80 – pronounced as “120 over 80”), the upper being systolic blood pressure (the pressure exerted during the heart’s contraction), and diastolic (the pressure exerted in between contractions).
The World Health Organization states that a person is diagnosed with high blood pressure when when any of the following criteria are met:
- systolic blood pressure greater than or equal to 140 mmHg, or
- diastolic blood pressure greater than or equal to 90 mmHg, or
- receiving medication for high blood pressure (Whitworth 2003).
Image from the Heart Foundation
According to a recent report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, about 23% of Australians aged 18 and over suffer from high blood pressure, with the percentage increasing with age.
Image from The AIHW
So, is it a disease or just a natural progressive consequence of aging?
Well the scientific literature has decades of data suggesting that high blood pressure need never occur.
One study monitored the blood pressure of a thousand individuals living in rural Kenya. These individuals all had one thing in common, they consumed a diet of whole plant foods.
This meant whole grains, vegetables, dark greens, legumes and fruit. So as with many Australians, the blood pressure of this rural population remained around 120/80, but as we Australians age, our blood pressure tends to creep up to 140/90 or even greater right? Well not so with with these plant-based plain dwellers!
But there are many more lifestyle and population-based differences between this African population and a typical Australian one besides diet yes?
Let’s look at some other populations. Check out this submission to the NSW Parliament summarising a longitudinal study on diet and lifestyle of North American and Chinese populations. Or take a glance over this study conducted by the National Geographic on what factors contributed to the longevity of the longest living populations around the globe, including one in California.
Finally, back to the Kenyan study. Over two years and 1,800 admissions to a rural hospital how many patients with high blood pressure presented? None. Not one single case of heart disease or high blood pressure were found.
So, what blood pressure should you aim for if you are already suffering from high blood pressure? That one is for you and your doctor to discuss. However, in line with the World Health Organisation’s definition one study discovered a significantly reduced level of risk for cardiovascular and all-cause mortality in individuals with systolic blood pressures between 120 and 139mmHg.
Reducing your blood pressure either through lifestyle and/or medication can be tricky. It can be handy to practice measuring blood pressure with an automatic blood pressure machine.