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Like termites steadily eating away at the foundation of a home, high blood pressure damages our blood vessels slowly, without outward signs of damage.
Just as protecting a house from those voracious insects requires long-term vigilance, protecting your arteries and veins from high blood pressure can't be done in a single doctor's visit.
It requires someone who knows you, including your medical history and which potential risk factors apply to you. And it requires someone who can follow you for years, monitoring the effect of treatment efforts and tweaking their effectiveness.
It calls, in other words, for a family doctor, also known as a "primary care" physician.
Preventing and controlling high blood pressure is among the best examples of why they're called "primary" doctors. High blood pressure is also a great illustration of their value because the condition is such a widespread and deadly threat.
One in three American adults have high blood pressure, but only about half of these people have it under control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure was the primary or contributing cause of death for about 410,000 Americans in 2014.
Seeing a primary care doctor can help you build an individualized plan to protect you from the deadly consequences of high blood pressure. After all, the first warning sign of high blood pressure is all too often a heart attack or stroke.
A Hidden Risk
Unlike a virus that makes you miserable or a twisted ankle that leaves you too hurt to walk, blood pressure can rise without you knowing. It is measured using two numbers: systolic pressure, the maximum pressure when your heart beats, and diastolic pressure, the pressure between beats.
According to the American Heart Association, a normal blood pressure reading is below 120/80, and high blood pressure begins when the upper number is 130 or the lower number is above 80.
You can't feel blood coursing through your blood vessels, so you often won't know if it's moving with too much force until it's too late.
Meanwhile, high blood pressure can damage your arteries, making it easier for fats to accumulate and begin to block them. Even worse, this combination of constant pressure and weakened arteries can cause a section of blood vessel wall to burst, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Even outside your heart, high blood pressure can damage faraway parts of your body. They include:
- Damage to your brain, including stroke, in which part of the brain is deprived of blood, killing brain cells
- Mild thinking problems or dementia
- Kidney failure
- Peripheral artery disease (clogged arteries in the extremities, often the legs)
Regularly seeing a doctor and staying on top of your daily health and wellness can spare you the expense and pain of these painful, debilitating and potentially deadly conditions.
Primary care providers know that keeping a long-term watch over your blood pressure - especially when you meet risk factors for heart disease - is a key piece of the puzzle in safeguarding your overall health.
Making a Prevention Plan
One of the added benefits of developing a relationship with a primary care doctor is you can learn how to monitor and improve your own health. That includes keeping an eye on the factors that are associated with high blood pressure, including:
- Being overweight
- Consuming too much salt or alcohol
- Too much stress
- Older age
- Lack of activity
Of these risk factors, eating too much salt is particularly important. Along with public health experts, nutritionists and dietitians, primary care doctors can educate their patients on ways to cut down on salt.
For example, your primary care physician may remind you that cutting down on the salt shaker is helpful, but the vast majority of the salt in our diet comes from restaurants and packaged food.
Latest Advice: Lower is Better
As they're experts in a wide variety of medical care, primary care physicians know a lot about a lot, especially the most common health problems like high blood pressure.
A new, major study has re-affirmed the medical value and cost-effectiveness in lowering systolic blood pressure (the number on top) to 120 instead of 140 in many non-diabetic patients. In other words, getting blood pressure down below levels that were once recommended can save even more lives.
It's another reminder of the value of prevention. And your primary care doctor knows what, if anything, might be putting you at risk of high blood pressure.
Just as wearing a seatbelt and driving defensively lowers the risk of getting into a car accident, a primary care provider can limit your risk of getting high blood pressure.
Some of their advice will likely be around lifestyle changes, especially in removing or minimizing the risk factors we described above. Medications to treat high blood pressure can also be effective, and a family doctor has the best long-term view to decide whether they ought to be used in your particular case.
Finding a Primary Care Doctor is Easy
When you're ready to find a primary care doctor, check out our physician finders to find one who best fits your needs:
- For residents of West Florida: Florida Hospital Physician's Group user-friendly physician finder
- For residents of Central Florida: Florida Hospital Medical Group's user-friendly physician finder
Your primary care doctor will be connected to Florida Hospital's world-class network of care throughout Florida. This will put your whole-person care - physical as well as emotional and spiritual - in the hands of a seamless team that puts your complete health first.