On February 27 of this year, Luke Perry, a beloved actor from Beverly Hills 90210, was found dead in his California home at just 52 years old. The sudden death caused by a massive ischemic stroke out of what seemed like nowhere. He was a vibrant, healthy, successful, middle-aged man with what should’ve been decades ahead of him. In the months after his death, experts and fans alike tried to figure out how someone like Luke could have a stroke without warning. Though he had smoked in the past and had a family history of heart disease, there weren’t big enough risk factors for even his doctors to worry about. This tragedy left many young Americans wondering if something similar could ever happen to them. One of the most important aspects of this conversation has to be blood pressure.

Over 100 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure and it continues to be a leading cause of death across the nation, with more lives lost every single year. For those of us still living up our 20’s, it’s not a health concern that crosses our mind very often, but the younger you brush up on this vital information, the better off you’ll be. Exercise and diet changes may start out in the pursuit of vanity, but they can do so much more for your heart and even extend your life.

 Blood pressure is a measurement of the force it takes for your heart to pump blood through your circulatory system. Blood not only keeps the flow of nutrients and oxygen to our organs, but also delivers antibodies and important hormones for our immune system, according to Medical News Today. 

A blood pressure reading is made up of two numbers. The top number is your systolic pressure - the pressure in your arteries when your heart contracts. The bottom number is your diastolic pressure - the pressure when your heart is between beats. According to the National Institute of Health, a healthy blood pressure is 120 mm/80 mm. With every rise of 20 mm/10mm, there’s an increased risk of heart disease, which is the world’s leading cause of death. 

High blood pressure is also referred to as hypertension and is caused by a number of things. Underlying conditions, plasma in your blood, hormones, or external factors like diet, exercise, and stress. If left untreated, high blood pressure can wreak havoc on not only your cardiovascular system, but other vital organs, and can even leave you blind.

An active lifestyle and balanced diet have shown great success in treating high blood pressure. Exercise makes your muscles stronger and it’s easy to forget that your heart is actually a muscle. The stronger the heart, the better it can pump blood all over your body. If you haven’t been active in a while, it will take about two or three months for your blood pressure to improve, but that doesn’t mean it won’t get there. Even with a history of cardiovascular problems, daily exercise can reduce the need for medication and keep any episodes at bay. You don’t have to be a gym junkie to see positive changes. Cleaning the house, walking up your stairs or taking a swim on a summer day can be just the aerobic activity you need to reduce your blood pressure. 

If the gym is your happy place, there is one factor to keep in mind. Heavy weight training can cause a temporary spike in blood pressure, but for the most part there are more benefits than consequences. As long as you use proper form, don’t hold your breath, and drop down to lighter weights when you need to, weight training can only help you. 

When it comes to diet, the main things to avoid are sodium, alcohol, and saturated fat. Excess sodium in your bloodstream makes your kidneys pump out more water to try and dilute it. The extra fluid in your circulatory system leads to higher blood pressure. Drinking too much alcohol causes the same kind of problem. Your body is trying so hard to filter out the boos that your blood pressure rises. Cholesterol is a type of fat produced by your liver and found in your blood. Cholesterol is in many foods we consider healthy like milk, eggs, and meat, as well as foods packed with saturated fat. High cholesterol stiffens up your arteries and can clog your blog vessels, which is a big factor in many strokes and heart attacks.

All of these insights into our diet explain why overweight individuals typically have a greater risk of having high blood pressure. Poor eating choices lead to more fat being stored and the more fat you carry, the harder it is for blood to get where it needs to go. Drastic weight loss is usually followed by a drastic drop in blood pressure. It’s kind of like a garden hose that’s been twisted in the yard. All the water builds up in the hose and the pressure slowly rises. But as soon as the weight is taken off the hose, all the water can flow freely again. 

For you smokers out there, high blood pressure is one more reason to quit. Yes, the smoke is bad for your lungs, but the nicotine is bad for your heart. It narrows and hardens the arteries, making your blood more likely to clot.

Stress isn’t just an emotion, it’s actually a physical condition that can have adverse consequences on your heart. Your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline when you are stressed, putting more strain on your circulatory system and raising your blood pressure.

Genetics only determine about one-third of high blood pressure cases. We are all the result of shuffling the genetic deck, but there have been studies in recent years that point to the mother’s side as the source of many heart-related conditions. There are many factors at play here, though. Many of our genetic predispositions form in pregnancy, which involves a lot more than just the mother’s DNA. Lifestyle choices, environment and of course the father’s contribution throw a lot more onto the playing field. Having close relatives, any kind of relatives, with high-blood pressure can increase your chances so don’t be too quick to blame your parents.

Men are more prone to hypertension than women until the age of 50. After 50, the risk to women increases with the onset of menopause. The causes and complications can vary based on your gender as well. Your susceptibility to high blood pressure can also depend on your ethnicity. The prevalence of high blood pressure in African-Americans in the U.S. is the highest in the world, affecting over 40% of the population. There have been many studies done on this phenomenon, narrowing in on sodium sensitivity, obesity and diabetes factors, but it seems like the culprit is mostly genetic. 

It’s recommended that you check your blood pressure every time you see your doctor and at least once every two years. The higher your blood pressure, the more often you should be getting checked, especially after the age of 65.

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Take it from me

There is a history of heart disease in my family, but until recently I didn’t know much about blood pressure. I’m only 25 and pretty healthy as far as I’m concerned, so I don’t see my doctor very often. But I’ve learned that being aware of these things at a young age might keep me from stumbling into an unexpected health condition as an adult. 

My dad actually started monitoring his health a little closer this year when his doctor noticed his high blood pressure. Seeing how he has tackled it head on, finding his own remedies and lifestyle changes has inspired me to take care of myself too. Checking your blood pressure only takes a few minutes and you can even do it at home. It’s time we put our looks and biceps aside, and take a deeper look at how our bodies really work.