You may think of a stroke as just that—a stroke of bad luck. But in fact, many strokes (and heart attacks) are preventable if you modify one big risk factor: high blood pressure, or hypertension. Unlike other red flags such as obesity or smoking, high blood pressure is usually a silent issue. Since you don't actually feel sick, it's easy to shove aside the results of the quick test. Here's why you should pay attention: Your numbers are a reflection of how hard your heart has to work with each beat. If left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to stiffening of vessels and increased risk of plaque buildup. (A stroke happens when a piece of plaque ruptures, causing a blood clot to develop.) The higher your blood pressure, the greater your danger.
THREE STEPS TO LOWER BP
Reducing your blood pressure to an optimal level (see chart) can lengthen your life by at least one to three years. If you have extremely high numbers, starting on medication right away is standard, along with lifestyle changes. If your BP is only mildly elevated, you'll likely be encouraged to alter your habits first. Try these research-backed methods:
1. Trim the amount of salt in your diet, ideally to no more than the American Heart Association's recommended 1,500 mg of sodium a day. START TODAY: Skip the bread in your sandwich and opt for a lettuce wrap. Many packaged breads are loaded with sodium, which adds up with each meal.
2. Increase your activity by walking daily. This will lower your blood pressure and help strengthen your heart over time. START TODAY: Stroll for at least 20 minutes, then check your calendar and pencil in the other times that you can squeeze in a walk this week.
3. Adopt the simple DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet program, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lowfat dairy. START TODAY: Swap savory snacks for a piece of fruit and go to to download a guide from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.