New year might see more people treating high blood pressure through nutrition

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: Amanda Mills/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

It’s a new year so, of course, the time is right to try a new diet. One approach that’s been consistently ranked as best for heart health and for healthy eating is the DASH diet. It’s a plan with particular relevance for older adults, who have the highest prevalence of hypertension in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Untreated hypertension can lead to stroke, kidney damage, heart disease and other serious conditions. Of course whether you’re examining rankings for diets, hospitals, or nursing homes, criteria and standards vary from publication to publication so some skepticism over the term “best” may be appropriate.

Despite rave reviews, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.) has gotten less hype than other approaches like the Mediterranean, South Beach, or Aktins diets. But why, as this story in The Washington Post asks. Maybe it’s because there’s no “gimmick” or miracles promised. It emphasizes lean protein, fiber, low-fat dairy, plenty of vegetables and fruit, beans and nuts, along with foods low in sodium, saturated fat and sugar. No magic. Just healthy eating.

DASH was developed by National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)-funded researchers specifically to prevent and treat high blood pressure. The National Institutes of Health says this low-sodium diet may help reduce blood pressure as well as or better than many anti-hypertension medications, says the National Institutes of Health. Currently about 7 in 10 people are on anti-hypertensive medication, according to the CDC.

They claim that following the DASH diet could reduce blood pressure readings by several points in just a few weeks. Systolic (the top number) could drop by as much as 14 points over time, making a significant impact on overall health and reducing risk of hypertension-related problems.  It’s an approach that seems to work, according to this story.

Risk of hypertension increases with age. Before age 55, men have a greater chance of having high blood pressure. Women are more likely to be diagnosed after menopause. After age 65 hypertension becomes more prevalent among women, and the gender gap widens as people get older. Hypertension can be genetic, so it’s important for patients and their health providers to know family history. Other risk factors include race — African Americans are at increased risk, and at an earlier age — than Hispanics or whites. Sedentary lifestyle and excess weight also contribute to hypertension.

You may recall the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology revised blood pressure guidelines for adults back in November. Now, a reading of 130 for systolic or 80 for diastolic indicates hypertension. Previously, 140 for those under 65 and 150 for those 65 and older was considered hypertensive.  That put a lot more people with “borderline” or pre-hypertension into the high blood pressure category, as this story explains. Perhaps surprisingly, for the very old (85-plus), lower blood pressure readings may not be the best marker of health, as The New York Times reported back in 2012., For this age group, many doctors now set a target of 140/90 mmHg, 150/80 mmHg, or 150/85 mmHg, says the American Geriatrics Society.

I plan to try the DASH diet too, on the advice of my doctor. Check back in a few months for an update.

Further reading

  • This article discusses the significant role socioeconomics plays in the health of older adults — from cardiovascular health to obesity, to access to care. Are there targeted programs in your community that address hypertension in older residents?
  • Rural older adults face some unique dietary challenges in controlling high blood pressure, as this article points out.
  • The National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute has a free copy of the DASH diet available for download.
  • This tip sheet on older adults and heart disease provides background information and resources
  • This tip sheet covers what reporters should know about older adults and nutrition.
  • In this tip sheet, Barbara Bein shares tips on how to cover smell and taste disorders in older adults, a condition that can affect food choices.

2 thoughts on “New year might see more people treating high blood pressure through nutrition

  1. Linda Roman

    The USPSTF did not revise blood pressure treatment goals in November, as your article states. At that time, the AHA/ACC issued new guidelines for blood pressure control. Also, the level for normal blood pressure did not change; it has been less than 120/80 for quite some time. What the AHA/ACC did was to lower the threshold for a diagnosis of hypertension from 140/90 to 130/80, meaning more people will require treatment with lifestyle changes and/or medication.

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