A few weeks ago I began discussing a topic that is very pertinent to the fire service – heart health.
Aside from smoking, there are 5 major heart disease risk factors: obesity, low aerobic fitness, poor blood cholesterol, high blood glucose (development of type II diabetes), and high blood pressure.
Today’s topic is high blood pressure or “hypertension.” I’ve saved this discussion for last because being hypertensive is very, very dangerous to firefighters – even more so than obesity, smoking and high cholesterol. Hypertensive firefighters are 12 times more likely to experience a fatal heart attack on duty compared to those with healthy blood pressure.
In 2012, 70% of the 27 U.S. firefighters who suffered sudden cardiac deaths were hypertensive.
Now before you check out because you think you’re too young for this – this COULD be you. In the many firefighter fitness tests that I’ve conducted over the years I’ve seen even very young, seemingly healthy people with hypertension!
Causes of Hypertension
While salt tends to take all the blame for hypertension, it’s actually being overweight that is the greatest risk factor for hypertension. In fact, research shows that peoples’ systolic blood pressure rises linearly with their weight. Therefore, the first and most effective treatment for hypertension is weight loss.
High sodium intake only causes hypertension for people who are “salt-sensitive” – a condition that researchers estimate no more than 50% of the population has. To see if you’re salt sensitive, cut sodium out of your diet and see if your blood pressure drops.
Another major risk factor for hypertension is sleep apnea, a condition that often goes undiagnosed for a long time, especially in firefighters who mistake it for job-related tiredness. The temporary breath-holding that occurs in the night causes a spike in blood pressure that persists throughout the daytime. Sleep deprivation, a result of sleep apnea, can also cause weight gain/obesity, making sleep apnea doubly dangerous for hypertension. Sleep apnea needs to be treated with weight loss (the greatest risk factor) and/or use of a CPAP machine.
Aside from weight loss, other ways to treat hypertension are to adopt the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet which includes low fat dairy products and meats, grains, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables, and to exercise. Because exercise produces vasodilation, people experience a dramatic drop in blood pressure post exercise that can persist for up to 24 hours after the exercise bout.
Stress reduction and lower salt intake may also be necessary for some people. Lifestyle modifications like these are always recommended before taking medication (or in addition to) because it is truly the most effective therapy.
I challenge you to take the pledge to check your blood pressure regularly and, if needed, take action to avoid hypertension. Please leave your name below so we can cheer you on.
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