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How to Manage Prehypertension

Prehypertension is a new term that alerts people to the very real risk of developing chronic high blood pressure if they don't take timely steps to improve their lifestyle habits, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Prehypertension is defined as a blood pressure with the top (systolic) number between 120 and 139, or the bottom (diastolic) number between 80 and 89. Someone who ends up with full-blown high blood pressure may, in time, develop heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, or dementia, and may have to stay on prescription drugs for life.

The numbers to remember are 120 over 80—the blood pressure reading that until recently was considered to fall in a healthy range. That reading now should be seen as a yellow light, experts say. According to federal guidelines, those numbers signal the low end, or the beginning, of prehypertension. Prehypertension is diagnosed when either the top number or the bottom number is high.

Checking the pressure

When blood pressure is high, the heart works too hard and excessive pressure is exerted against the walls of the arteries. Without effective treatment, the forceful blood flow eventually can harm the arteries.

Everyone should have their blood pressure measured every year or two, and more often if they have abnormal readings. There's no way to know if your blood pressure is high unless you have it checked, since you can feel perfectly relaxed and healthy yet still have an elevated level. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), one in three adults has high blood pressure--defined as blood pressure equal to or above 140/90--and only 78 percent of this population are aware of their condition.

When the systolic pressure is 120 or higher, people need to focus on lifestyle choices to try to improve their blood pressure. Starting at 140, they also need to discuss the use of drugs with their doctors.

To prevent hypertension, people with prehypertension need to live a healthy lifestyle.

Get your body moving

Regular vigorous walking has been shown to help lower blood pressure numbers. Any physical activity, however, has potential benefit, even if it takes forms other than walking. 

Keep weight under control

The increase in high blood pressure in recent years is in large part because of Americans' getting heavier. Burning calories through exercise and adopting healthy eating habits will help you to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Losing as few as 10 pounds can have a significant effect on blood pressure levels.

Follow a healthy diet

Hypertension experts advocate the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan as a rational approach to healthy eating. This diet focuses on a high intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, and limits sugary foods and beverages, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

Limit salt and sodium

Salt-sensitive people—those whose salt intake has a clear effect on their blood pressure readings—definitely need to limit the sodium in their diets.

Limit alcohol

Women and men of lower body weight should limit their alcohol to one drink per day, and men and heavier women should have no more than two drinks a day, according to international blood pressure guidelines. These guidelines aren't a recommendation to drink alcohol; rather, they offer limits for people who choose to drink.

Don't smoke

Smoking cigarettes temporarily causes an increase in blood pressure. That's not nearly as important as the fact that smoking adds to the risk of developing heart disease and stroke.