Silent killer: Get screened... and live a little


Things pop all the time. "Pop goes the weasel!" "I'm so mad my head is going to pop off!" "Pop open the trunk."

We pop off the heads of dandelions. At the movies we eat pop corn. In the Midwest, soda is called "pop." Champagne corks can pop into your eye and cause damage (a pop-eye?). In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy falls asleep in poppies.

Is there a silent medical condition that can make your organs pop? Well, yes. Hypertension (HTN) is the medical term for high blood pressure.

It doesn't mean you are "hyper" like a new puppy or "tense" like Dick Cheney. It means the blood that runs through your arteries at elevated pressure. Over 60 million American adults have HTN– including yours truly.

In fact, treatment of HTN is the #1 reason for a doctor's visit and for use of prescription medications. Half of all people over the age of 65 have HTN. (Perhaps antihypertensive medications should be put in the tap water at senior citizen centers.)

Most people don't know how to interpret blood pressure readings, so let's break it down. There are two numbers to BP: systolic BP (SBP)/diastolic BP (DBP). SBP is when your heart beats/pumps blood out– the pressure in your arteries goes up. DPB is when your heart relaxes and fills with blood– the baseline pressure to keep your arteries open.

If your BP is 120/80, it is read as, "120 over 80." When your heart pumps, the pressure in your arteries is 120mmHg (millimeters of mercury), and when it relaxes, it drops down to 80. Cool, huh?

The Joint National Committee has come out with new definitions of various readings. Normal BP is under 120/80. A pre-hypertension reading is systolic 120-139, diastolic 80-89. Hypertension numbers are a systolic reading of 140 or more, or a diastolic reading of higher than 90 at least twice on different visits to the doctor.

Hypertension is called the "silent killer" because most people can't feel any symptoms when they have it. It doesn't make you sneeze, make you less hungry, give you a fever, or makes your joints hurt. A few people with really high BPs experience headaches, chest pains, shortness of breath, and palpitations. But overall, most hypertensive people are clueless about their blood pressure.

In the long run, though, elevated blood pressure has been proven to cause serious medical problems. Heart disease is the number-one killer in this country, and HTN is a huge contributor.

Congestive heart failure can occur from heart muscle changes that develop to deal with the increased blood pressure resistance. This killer can be reduced by 50 percent with BP control.

Arrhythmias can lead to unexpected death, called sudden death. We all hear stories about a relative who was doing fine until he or she "keeled over" one day. Peripheral arterial disease slows down the blood flow to the legs, and makes walking as fun as running the Boston Marathon.

Kidney disease and failure can occur from the constant pounding of high blood pressure. Clearly, HTN makes getting older "get old" real fast.

But heart attacks can be reduced 25 percent with antihypertensive therapy, and strokes can be reduced– by 40 percent– if BP is well controlled.

Exercise, weight loss, lower salt intake, good diet with fruits and vegetables, and moderate consumption of alcohol all can reduce BP. Medications are very effective and safe overall.

Because HTN is so treatable, Dr. David Aller is involved in "First Saturday," free HTN screenings at Martha Jefferson Hospital from 10am to noon in the lobby the first Saturday of each month.

Parking is free. BP readings are free. Your health is worth so much more.

For more information, call 434-982-7009 or 888-652-6663.