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A recent survey has found that almost half of South African adults suffer from high blood pressure. According to the 2016 South Africa Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS), a staggering 46% of women and 44% of men (aged 15 years and over) have hypertension and prevalence which increases with age. 

While some people have symptoms like headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations and nose bleeds, others experience no symptoms at all. This means there’s a fair chance you have hypertension and don’t know it. As September is Heart Awareness Month, and the 29th marks Heart Health Day in South Africa, it’s an opportune time to become more informed, before it’s too late.

What is hypertension and why is it dangerous?

“Hypertension is a condition in which your blood vessels have persistently high pressure,” explains Dr Deepak Patel, Clinical Specialist at Discovery Vitality. “A healthy blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg. If you have your blood pressure taken on three different days, and all your readings are 140/90 mmHg or higher, it is very likely that you have hypertension. The upshot of this is that your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), uncontrolled high blood pressure is dangerous because it can lead to heart attacks, heart enlargement, and eventually heart failure. Hypertension can also damage your blood vessels, and lead to aneurysms (weak spots and bulging in your vessels) and strokes. Additional negative health consequences include possible kidney failure, blindness, and cognitive impairment.

Key lifestyle changes that combat hypertension 

The WHO offers these five key steps to prevent or manage hypertension:

Follow a healthy diet:  Opt for whole foods over processed foods and limit non-nutritious, health-harming foods such as those high in sugar and unhealthy fats. 
If you drink alcohol, stick to moderate amounts: Drinking too much alcohol also increases your blood pressure. Limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men.
Exercise regularly: Consistent exercise has shown to be highly effective in lowering the risk of chronic diseases of lifestyle. Get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity a week.
Stop smoking: Smoking has been shown to increase high blood pressure.
Manage stress in a healthy way: Prolonged periods of stress have negative health effects on your body.

Managing hypertension with a healthy diet 

Candice Smith, Head of Vitality's nutrition strategy, says, “One of the easiest ways to lower your blood pressure and improve your health is make a few simple changes to your diet. For example, including more potassium-rich foods (like vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruits) and less sodium (found in salt, bread, margarine, processed meats, soup, stock powder, condiments, crisps and crackers and convenience foods) will help to lower your blood pressure.”

Smith offers these nine tips to help prevent or manage hypertension through your everyday food choices:

 - Start by simply adding gradually less salt to your food during cooking and at the table.  Instead, flavour food with fresh and dried herbs and salt-free spices, garlic, vinegar or citrus juice and zest.
 - Limit salty foods such as packet soups, stock cubes, gravy, cheese, many breakfast cereals, bread, salty snacks, processed meat and fast food.
 - Shop smarter by learning to read food labels so you can identify hidden salt in products. Aim to fill most of your shopping basket with minimally-processed whole foods. Choose low-sodium versions of products where available.
 -Replace salty snacks with fresh fruit or unsalted nuts and seeds.
 - Incorporate more vegetables into your day – add a side salad to meals, snack on vegetable crudités, and incorporate more vegetables into existing recipes (like a spinach and mushroom omelettes, wraps or sandwiches with grated carrot, beetroot and cucumber, pasta sauces with pureed baby marrows and butternut, and so on).
 - Serve fresh fruit after dinner to satisfy sweet cravings instead of sugary desserts. 
 - Add beans, chickpeas, and lentils to your favourite meals.  Be sure to rinse canned legumes before using them to remove excess salt.
 - Use healthy fats such as avocado or salt-free nut butters as a spread instead of mayonnaise, butter or margarine, cook with olive or canola oil and add unsalted seeds and nuts to a salad or a bowl of oats porridge or have as a snack. 
 - Calcium helps to regulate blood pressure, so incorporate more unsweetened milk and plain yoghurt into your day. Make dairy smoothies, add milk to your porridge, or have yoghurt as a snack.

(press release)