Spotlight on health: Hypertension, the silent killer

Published December 20, 2016

More than 70 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure, which according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Health IndexSM, is one of the five conditions causing nearly a third of the population’s reduction in health. Yet nearly one-third of them do not realize they have this life-threatening condition. And for those who have been diagnosed, about half do not have their blood pressure under control — increasing their risk for stroke, heart attacks and other serious problems.

Why is hypertension so difficult to diagnose and manage? Part of the reason is that it rarely causes symptoms. People learn that they have hypertension only when a clinician measures their blood pressure.

Gail, 55, discovered that she had high blood pressure after her father’s death led her to compulsive eating. “I was digging my grave with a knife and fork,” she said.

In addition to hypertension, Gail was overweight, didn’t exercise and had high cholesterol — all risk factors for developing heart disease. Her daughter was terrified that Gail would die prematurely.

“I couldn’t bear to see the tears in her eyes anymore,” said Gail. “I knew I had to make a change.”

Like Gail, those with a family history of hypertension are particularly at risk, according to the American Heart Association. Race, gender and age are all factors. High blood pressure disproportionately affects African-Americans, men under 54 and women over 65. Between the ages of 55 and 64, men and women are affected equally.

Lifestyle factors also play a key role. A lack of exercise, an unhealthy diet – particularly one high in sodium – tobacco use, high stress levels, excessive drinking and sleep apnea can all increase the risk of developing hypertension.

The majority of people with undiagnosed high blood pressure do have insurance and receive routine check-ups, but simply haven’t been diagnosed.

Million Hearts® – a campaign to prevent heart attacks and strokes – aims to help people get their cardiovascular health under control. The initiative, a joint project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services, urges healthcare professionals to be more proactive in identifying, treating and following-up with patients with hypertension.

Million Hearts® recommends that doctors define their practices’ diagnostic criteria for hypertension, comb through electronic records to determine which patients might be at risk and work to diagnose and develop a treatment plan for patients. The campaign also encourages healthcare professionals to follow-up with patients, monitor their blood pressure and see how they are complying with medication, diet and exercise regimens.

As part of Million Hearts®, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Service Benefit Plan, also known as the Federal Employee Program (FEP®) teamed up to provide free home blood pressure monitors for members of the Federal Employee Program. Members can also tap into a range of services to help them change their diet, quit smoking and receive health coaching.

For Gail, a series of lifestyle changes, such as starting to exercise for just five minutes a day, helped her turn her health around. She became stronger and more confident exercising, and even ran a 5K race. Her blood pressure is now at a normal level and her other health problems have been reversed.

“Small, simple changes are the way to get big results,” Gail said.

The ‘Spotlight on Health’ series provides a forum for expert perspectives on the top five conditions affecting America’s health today, according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Index. Hypertension ranks #2 out of 200 conditions.