Under pressure - how two minutes could save you 16 years
What kills 40 per cent of us despite being treatable at any age? What affects a third of the population yet only a small percentage knows they have it? And what can be accurately diagnosed within two minutes using a machine that costs less than £100?
The answer to all of the above is high blood pressure. The condition is also the biggest cause of strokes and heart disease in the UK and a major factor in heart attacks. It can lead to kidney and lung failure, internal bleeding, blindness and impotence. And yet many people have never even had their blood pressure measured.
This is why the Blood Pressure Association is hosting Blood Pressure Week from September 16 to 22. The charity hopes to make people understand the importance of blood pressure and encourage them find out their own levels. Hundreds of "pressure stations" across the UK will give free blood pressure measurements and advice on what to do if people's readings are too high.
The aim, as chairman of the organisation Professor Graham McGregor says, is to make blood pressure equivalent to someone's height or weight. "If I told you someone was 5 ft 9 high and weighed 18 stone, you'd know immediately they were overweight. But if I told you their blood pressure, would that mean anything to you?"
The answer, of course, is probably not. Blood pressure is what doctors shout to one another when zipping through casualty, "It's 60 over 20, doctor; we're losing him."
And you probably don't know that, if your blood pressure is consistently higher than 140 over 90 (140/90), you are at risk of serious health problems and need to find ways of reducing it.
140 over 90?
So what do these figures actually mean? The first number is the systolic blood pressure. This is the highest pressure that exists within your arteries and occurs when the heart is pumping blood out. The second figure (diastolic) is the opposite - the lowest pressure in your arteries - which occurs when the heart in filling up with blood. Both are measured in mm Hg - millimetres of mercury - which is simply a hangover from early blood pressure measuring devices.
Blood pressure can be naturally high or low, but the lower it is, the longer life you will lead. Unfortunately, the UK tends to suffer from high blood pressure, says Alison Shaw, cardiac nurse and spokeswoman for the British Heart Foundation.
Equally unfortunate is the fact that you can't tell if you have high blood pressure. "There are absolutely no symptoms," says Prof McGregor. "The only way to know is to test. And, sadly, the first time most people find out about it is when they have a stroke or heart attack."
He tells of a young man who had his pressure tested last year in response to Blood Pressure Week. "He came in and it was 240 over 140. If he hadn't found out then, he wouldn't have had long to live."
But while that is an extreme case, millions of people in the UK have high blood pressure and are increasing their risk of premature death every day. A 35-year-old male with an unchecked blood pressure of 160/120 can expect to live 16 years less than someone with normal blood pressure, say experts.
If you do have high blood pressure, you may also be making it significantly worse by leading an unhealthy lifestyle. You won't be surprised to hear that smoking and drinking are a heart attack's best friend. If your blood pressure is too high, a doctor will tell you to cut down on both, plus eat less salt and fat, more fruit and veg and do more exercise. You'll live longer if you do. He may also put you on a course of tablets - of which there are hundreds - to help bring your blood pressure down.
How to get your numbers
So, how do you get your blood pressure measured? You can buy your own sphygmomanmeter - blood pressure measuring machine - for around £100, although Ms Shaw tends to advise against it. "You have to be careful. Your machine could be different to a GP's and give a different reading, which may worry some people."
Or you can go to one of the "pressure stations" during Blood Pressure Week. But it's probably just as easy to get it done while visiting a GP. It'll only take a minute.
Prof McGregor always congratulates people who find out they have high blood pressure. "It means they can do something about it and live longer," he says. Since you only need to have your blood pressure measured every five years, time is not a vital factor. The most important thing is just to get tested.
"People don't quite realise the enormous effect it would have if we got everyone to measure their blood pressure," Prof McGregor says. And the figures speak for themselves - it could save 150,000 lives a year.
Blood Pressure Association - www.bpassoc.org.uk
British Heart Foundation - www.bhf.org.uk