(May 2010) by Dr Steve Barker

Have you ever wondered why doctors and nurses seem so keen on taking your blood pressure? No sooner have you sat down in the medical rooms and someone is folding the cuff around your upper arm and pumping it up! Not surprisingly there is a good reason for this.

A high number of New Zealanders, something around 1 in 5, will have problems with high blood pressure (hypertension). The difficulty with hypertension is that it's mostly a problem without noticeable symptoms.

Untreated high blood pressure causes stress and damage to the heart, but it also has effects on blood vessels elsewhere in the body; in particular the small or fragile blood vessels in the eyes and kidney.

A target healthy blood pressure for most people would be around the level of 130/80 whilst sitting resting. Sometimes higher or lower targets are acceptable. It is normal for blood pressure to rise briefly with exercise, excitement etc, but in a healthy individual the pressure will return to normal within a short time afterwards. To some extent it is also normal to have some blood pressure rise as one gets older. However, this is not to the degree that was once considered acceptable, and in general blood pressure targets are mostly similar whatever your age.

Blood pressure is one of the factors responsible for heart disease and strokes. Other important factors include raised blood cholesterol and smoking. In particular smoking itself can also aggravate high blood pressure.

Men over the age of 45 and women over 55 should have a fairly regular blood pressure check, for example yearly. With other medical conditions patients should take the advice of their doctor as to the frequency of checking. As with many things a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables will help - in particular keeping salt intake relatively low, and using low fat dairy foods will help. A final important thing is to keep up with regular exercise.