Practical Prevention—Diet Helps Maintain a Healthy Blood Pressure
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Practical Prevention—Diet Helps Maintain a Healthy Blood Pressure

I noticed Jesse's blood pressure creeping up several years ago. It had slowly risen from normal to high-normal during her 50s and, now at age 60, had reached the upper limits of normal. Time to take preventive action before Jesse's blood pressure gets any higher, I thought.

Increasing Age and Rising Blood Pressure

According to the American Heart Association, nearly one out of three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. But because there are no symptoms, nearly one-third of these people don’t know they have it. The chance that your blood pressure will rise increases steadily as you grow older. As a result, about 65% of people over age 60 have high blood pressure. But recent studies suggest that simple dietary changes can help maintain healthy blood pressure and prevent related health problems that occur when blood pressure gets too high.

Pressure-Related Problems

Your blood pressure is usually recorded as two numbers, for example 120/80. The upper number, or systolic pressure, measures the force in your blood vessels when your heart contracts. The lower number, or diastolic pressure, represents the force while your heart rests between beats. Though both pressures may fluctuate, pressures should normally stay below 130/85. Accurate readings on several occasions of 140/90 or higher mean that you have hypertension.

Even slight elevations in blood pressure may put you at risk for developing serious problems. Hypertension is the leading cause of coronary heart disease—the number-one killer of older men and women in this country. And it increases your odds of having a stroke—the third most common cause of death. In addition, high blood pressure can contribute to congestive heart failure, hardening of the arteries, kidney disease and blindness. Fortunately, certain dietary steps may ward off many of these complications.

A DASH of Prevention

In 1997 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published the results of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study. DASH researchers found that adults can reduce their blood pressure by eating a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and rich in fruits, vegetables, and lowfat dairy foods. Study results showed that the DASH diet works as effectively as some blood pressure medications.

Today, the NIH recommends the DASH diet for adults of all ages who want to reduce blood pressure. It even lowers pressure a little in those with normal blood pressure.

Eating the DASH Diet

For a person who eats 2,000 calories a day, the DASH diet calls for:

  • Grains: 7-8 servings each day
  • Vegetables: 4-5 servings each day
  • Fruits: 4-5 servings each day
  • Lowfat or nonfat dairy products: 2-3 servings each day
  • Meats, poultry, and fish: no more than 2 servings each day
  • Nuts, seeds, and legumes: 4-5 servings each week
  • Limited intake of fats and sweets

For study details and tips on eating the DASH way, see "Lowering blood pressure with the DASH diet."

Salt Sense

Results from the second phase of the DASH study completed in 2000 (called DASH- Sodium) indicate that cutting salt intake is another effective way to lower blood pressure. After 14 weeks of monitoring 412 adults on six different diets, researchers found those who consumed a DASH diet with only 1500 milligrams of sodium a day had the biggest improvement in their blood pressures.

On this diet, people with and without hypertension had significant reductions in blood pressure. Those with hypertension saw their blood pressures drop even more. The researchers concluded that eating less salt may help reduce the risk of high blood pressure as you grow older. For more details, see "Limit salt to lower blood pressure."

Calorie Control and Alcohol Moderation

Besides curtailing use of the saltshaker, reducing your weight and alcohol intake may help lower blood pressure, too. In a 30-month study of 875 hypertensive people aged 60-80, obese participants who lost about ten pounds were 64% less likely to have high blood pressure or require blood pressure-lowering medication than those who did not lose weight. New guidelines from the American Heart Association also recommend limiting alcohol consumption to one daily drink for women and two for men, for better blood pressure control.


American Heart Association

The Dash Diet

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

Health Canada

Last reviewed February 2008 by Dianne Scheinberg MS, RD, LDN

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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