You and Your Health: High blood pressure and cholesterol

Having high blood pressure or high cholesterol are two major risk factors of developing a form of cardiovascular disease such as a stroke, heart attack, or peripheral arterial disease. These conditions are all caused by a build up of fatty deposits in the arteries which restrict the blood supply to the brain, heart or limbs and can prove fatal.

But making lifestyle changes – and knowing your numbers – can help reduce your risk.

What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is measured by two numbers. The higher number (systolic) is the force at which your heart pumps blood around your body. The lower number (diastolic) is the resistance to the blood flow in the blood vessels. Everyone’s blood pressure readings will be different, but an ideal range is between 90/60 and 120/80.

One in three adults in the UK has high blood pressure (hypertension) which is classed as consistently measuring 140/90 or above. This means the arteries and heart are under more strain to pump blood around the body. High blood pressure is responsible for more than half of strokes and heart attacks, the majority of which could have been prevented.

A major concern is that people with high blood pressure don’t generally present with any symptoms and the first sign could often be a heart attack or stroke. One in two of those with high blood pressure don’t know they have it – that’s around six million people in the UK – and are shocked to find out.

There is an annual campaign each September by Blood Pressure UK called Know Your Numbers which encourages all adults, no matter their age, to know their blood pressure numbers in the same way they know their height and weight. Larger pharmacies such as Lloyds offer a free blood pressure check and some GP surgeries (pre-Covid) have a machine in the waiting area, but you can also order a home monitoring kit.

If you are under 40 and don’t know your numbers, it is a good idea to have your blood pressure checked, particularly if you smoke, are overweight or have other health problems. Anyone over 40 should have their BP checked at least every five years. Depending on the reading, you will need to then get checked weekly, annually or every five years.

If you have high blood pressure, there are ways to reduce it by adapting your lifestyle. Increasing exercise, reducing weight and stopping smoking will all help. Diet also plays a role in blood pressure; eating healthily, ensuring you get your five-a-day, and reducing salt and saturated fats in your diet. Reducing your systolic measurement by 10mm reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease by 20 percent.

What is high cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance made in the liver which can also be found in some foods. The body needs it to function; it is used to make vitamin D and steroid hormones to keep bones, teeth and muscle healthy, as well as to make bile to digest fats. But too much cholesterol can clog arteries and cause heart problems

There are two main types of cholesterol carried in the blood. Low density lipid (LDL) is classed as bad cholesterol as it has more fat content and more likely to cause heart disease. High density lipid (HDL) is good cholesterol as it has more protein than fat.

As with blood pressure, there are usually no symptoms of high cholesterol and the only way to know your level is to get it checked. Your GP or pharmacy will offer either a finger prick test or take a blood sample to assess the fat in your blood. A healthy level of cholesterol is measured by either a total reading of five or below, LDL reading of three or below, or HDL reading of one or above.

A raised cholesterol level is often attributed to a diet high in saturated fats, not being active enough or genetic conditions.

If you’re aged between 40-74 you should have your cholesterol measured every five years via the NHS health check which also looks at your blood pressure and weight. If you’re at high risk of heart disease or have been previously diagnosed with it, or are on medication to lower your cholesterol, you will be invited more regularly.

Statins are medicines that are regularly prescribed to manage high cholesterol, but they need to be taken for life. Lifestyle changes can also improve your cholesterol, such as exercising for at least 150 minutes a week, stopping smoking, and drinking less than 14 units of alcohol a week. In your diet, you should cut down on saturated fats found in pies, sausages, butter and cream, and eat more oily fish, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, and fruit and vegetables.