You probably know that high cholesterol and high blood pressure put your heart at risk if you don’t control and treat them. But these two threats often don’t produce noticeable symptoms. So how can you protect your heart if you don’t know you have a problem?
About 30 percent of U.S. adults have high cholesterol and fewer than half of them are getting treatment, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers are almost identical for high blood pressure, which also is called hypertension.
Blood pressure is the measurement of the force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls. High blood pressure means the pressure in your arteries is above the normal range. Cholesterol is a type of fat that circulates in your blood. High levels of cholesterol can lead to heart disease.
Left untreated, these two conditions are major risk factors for having a heart attack or stroke. The good news is they are easily diagnosed and treated.
We talked with cardiologist Mouin Abdallah, MD, to learn why screening for and treating these two silent threats is so important.
Q: How do you screen for hypertension and high cholesterol?
A: Your health care provider measures your blood pressure with a device called a sphygmomanometer, which consists of a stethoscope, arm cuff, dial, pump, and valve. A digital blood pressure monitor can provide an electronic blood pressure reading. Cholesterol screenings require a blood test.
Q: Why is it important to screen for hypertension and high cholesterol?
A: Neither conditions have symptoms, and there are detrimental long-term effects of both as you age if left untreated. For people with suboptimal health status — meaning they eat an unhealthy diet, are overweight, don’t exercise and smoke — screening is even more important.
Hypertension creates pressure inside the arteries. As the stress and pressure on the arteries continues over time, it leads to scarring and stiffness, which increases the risk of heart problems.
Over time, cholesterol lodges in the arteries of the heart or brain, blocking them and creating the potential for a heart attack or stroke.
Q: How often should I undergo screening?
A: For hypertension, we recommend that adults older than age 18 get screened for high blood pressure regardless of their risk or symptoms. In your 20s, once every five years is enough. But as you age, your risk for both is higher, so you should be screened more regularly.
If you are older than 30, you should undergo screening every one to five years, depending on your lifestyle. You can have it done at an annual physical, but you can also go to places like pharmacies that have blood pressure cuffs available. That qualifies as a screening.
If you have no symptoms or family history of high cholesterol, yearly screening for men should start at age 35. Men who have a family history of high cholesterol should start screening at age 20. Women can begin screening at age 45.
New guidelines from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommend screening all children for high cholesterol between the ages of 9 and 11, and again between 17 and 21. This is a good way to catch and treat potential problems early.
Q: How can you control hypertension and high cholesterol?
A: Making lifestyle changes including weight loss, smoking cessation, healthy exercise and a good diet can help control these conditions. If you make these changes as much as you can — or are unable or unwilling to make changes — medications can improve long-term outcomes.
Another, less appreciated aspect is sleep. People need eight hours of quality sleep to help keep their blood pressure and cholesterol in check. If your bed partner has concerns about your loud snoring or tells you that you stop to breathe while you’re sleeping, ask your doctor about being checked for sleep apnea.
Q: Why is it so important to follow your treatment plan?
A: Many people don’t take their medications as directed because the medicines don’t change how they feel. Because there are no symptoms of either condition, the drugs don’t make them feel better or different.
People often are less compliant over time, especially if there are side effects. But taking your medication is important because it will reduce your chances of having a stroke or heart attack and will have an impact on how you age in 10 to 20 years.