You might not expect hypertension to be a concern for an otherwise healthy 29-year-old woman, but that’s just the diagnosis that Felecia Williams received 27 years ago. Williams says that although she was young and not overweight or overly stressed, she did have a family history of hypertension and ate a high-salt diet.
High blood pressure has been a journey for Williams, who today is a clinical educator for WakeMed Heart & Vascular Services. She experienced a variety of ups and downs as she worked through her new reality of dealing with this chronic condition. Over time, her experience has given her a unique understanding of the plight of patients diagnosed with hypertension.
“I have felt the same dismay, frustration, depression and helplessness that many of our patients feel. I have also experienced the pharmaceutical rollercoaster of medication side effects, medication procurement and also insurance company scrutiny. Experiencing a change in physician care providers is another area of impact and frustration that many people who don’t have a chronic managed condition realize.”
Despite all of the challenges that come with managing a chronic condition, Williams focused on being proactive. She made sure to find the right physician partners to help her manage her high blood pressure.
“It’s imperative that your physicians and other care providers partner with you in addressing your health,” she said.
She also made the lifestyle changes she needed to for her health, adjusting her diet and finding a way of eating that worked for her.
“I’ve been on every eating plan out there but have proven to myself that the DASH diet … really works best for feeling well,” said Williams. “My husband has been a jewel as he’s quietly watched me experiment with various health and nutrition regimens!”
According to Sahar Amery, MD, a cardiologist with WakeMed Heart & Vascular Physicians, making the change to the DASH diet can be one of the best ways for people to improve their blood pressure numbers. Other lifestyle changes that can make a difference, according to Dr. Amery, are losing weight, engaging in regular exercise, quitting smoking, reducing stress and limiting alcohol intake.
Williams said that she also takes her medications as instructed, has boosted her level of physical activity and generally makes sure she’s doing everything she can to manage her hypertension.
“I monitor myself constantly,” she said. “If I start to get off track, I am self-motivated to get ‘back on the wagon.’”
The Stakes Are High
According to the American Heart Association, normal blood pressure is classified as a reading less than 120/80. The first number, the systolic pressure, represents the pressure when your heart beats. The second number, or diastolic pressure, represents the pressure when your heart relaxes. A blood pressure higher than 120/80 but lower than 140/90 is classified as prehypertension, and anything 140/90 or higher is classified as hypertension.
Dr. Amery says that some of the complications of hypertension include heart failure, renal disease, stroke and coronary artery disease. “Hypertension can increase the likelihood of subclinical or ‘silent’ stroke, which in turn has been linked with an elevated risk of vascular dementia and recurrent stroke,” said Dr. Amery.
These are serious complications, especially for a condition dubbed the “silent killer” because it often displays no warning signs or symptoms.
So, what can a person do to prevent becoming a victim of this “silent killer”?
Dr. Amery suggests getting your blood pressure checked regularly, at least once every two years. It’s also important to be proactive about making lifestyle changes to manage hypertension, whether you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure or you and your doctor are just concerned about your risks. Losing weight if you’re overweight, getting regular exercise, reducing stress and quitting smoking can have positive health benefits well beyond reducing blood pressure.
Williams agrees that those newly diagnosed with hypertension or with risk factors need to make their health a priority.
“Take charge of your own health,” she said. “No one knows your body better than you. Eat for health; not just for pleasure. Exercise your body, not for vanity, but to feel well, sleep well and have more stamina.”
And, she added, while it’s hard work to manage a chronic health condition, it’s worth it when you recognize the serious risks of uncontrolled high blood pressure.
“The risk of having a stroke or ventricular remodeling* is not worth the fight,” she said. “We only get one body. Blow that chance, and you don’t get another one.”
Take Care of Yourself
While you might think of high blood pressure as a condition mainly affecting men, the American Heart Association notes that hypertension is among the diagnosed chronic conditions that is more prevalent among older women (65 and up) than older men, with 57 percent of women over the age of 65 diagnosed with high blood pressure versus 54 percent of men of the same age.
Williams, who describes herself as a Type-A personality who is “very driven and regimented,” recognizes that sometimes women need to spend more time focusing on themselves … and not on the external.
“With women and health in general, the old adage ‘Take care of yourself so you can care for others’ is really true. The inside of the body is so much more important than the outside, but hundreds of dollars are spent by women of all economic statuses on beautifying the outside! Health can be taken for granted until it is jeopardized. It’s a better scenario to be proactive than reactive.”
*Ventricular remodeling refers to changes in the structure, size and/or shape of the heart muscle where it is damaged.