PhotoAs you will undoubtedly hear several times over the next couple of weeks, February is National Heart Month, and there will be plenty of tips for staying healthy.

So here's one. Get your blood pressure checked.

High blood pressure is called "the silent killer" because many people don't know they have it. There really are no symptoms.

But when blood pumps through veins and arteries with too much pressure, it can weaken the walls of those blood vessels, increasing the chance that there will be a break at some point, causing a stroke. When the heart works too hard to pump blood, the organ can become enlarged, causing heart problems later on.

29% know they have it

A Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) found that nearly three in 10 people said they had been diagnosed with high blood pressure. That's in line with estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A more disturbing statistic is only 54% say their blood pressure is under control. And maybe even more disturbing -- we're only talking about people who are aware that their blood pressure is outside the normal range. Many others may be blissfully unaware.

"This finding is concerning because we know that high blood pressure and heart attacks or chronic heart failure are so closely related," said Dr. John Meigs, Jr., president of the AAFP. "According to the CDC, seven out of 10 people who have a first heart attack have high blood pressure. Seven out of 10 people who develop chronic heart failure have high blood pressure. So it's important that people know what their blood pressure is and work with their family physician to treat it."

Easily treated

The good news is that high blood pressure is easily treated. First and foremost, a healthy diet and lifestyle will help keep your blood pressure in check. Tobacco and too much alcohol, along with a sedentary lifestyle, are major contributors to hypertension.

However, there can be other contributors to high blood pressure that can affect even the healthiest of people. But prescription medication is available that can keep your blood pressure in a healthy range.

What's normal?

And just what is that range? Well, that's been the subject of some recent debate. While the medical community in recent decades settled on 120/80 as the ideal reading, in late 2013 a medical panel issued new guidelines suggesting patients over 60 were fine with a blood pressure reading of 150/90. Blood pressure goals were also eased for adults with diabetes and kidney disease.

However, not everyone in medicine agrees, so it's a good idea to consult with your healthcare provider.

"Get your blood pressure checked," Meigs said. "If you have high blood pressure, work with your doctor to treat it and lower your risk factors."

At the same time, Meigs says it's a good idea to have your blood cholesterol levels checked as well.


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