April 14, 2006

Lifestyle Changes Can Lower Blood Pressure

photo of blood pressure being taken

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a serious public health problem. A major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, it affects about 1 of every 3 American adults. Prehypertension, a level above normal that also increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, affects almost as many. Now, good news comes in a study by NIH's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) that shows lifestyle changes can significantly lower rates of high blood pressure.

The researchers studied 810 men and women with mild hypertension or prehypertension who were not taking medications to control their blood pressure. They randomly divided them into 3 groups. Two "behavioral intervention" groups had several sessions during which they were counseled and given goals for weight loss, physical activity and sodium and alcohol intake limits. One of these groups also received guidance on following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, an eating plan that's been shown to lower blood pressure in previous studies. The third, a control group, received only a couple of sessions where they were given standard advice for blood pressure control.

Goals included a 15 lb weight loss (95% of the participants were overweight or obese), 3 hours per week of moderate physical activity, daily sodium intakes of no more than 2300 milligrams (a teaspoon of salt) and limits of one alcoholic drink per day for women and two per day for men. Those following the DASH diet aimed to eat 9-12 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, 2-3 servings of low-fat dairy products and keep their total fat to no more than 25% of total daily calories. To keep track, participants kept food diaries, counted calories and sodium intakes, and recorded their physical activity.

The results of the 18-month study were published in the April 4, 2006 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. Compared with the control group, both the behavioral intervention groups significantly reduced their weight, fat intake and sodium intake. The DASH group also increased their fruit, vegetable, dairy, fiber and mineral intakes. While about 37% of the participants had high blood pressure at the study's start, by the end that fell to 32% in the control group, 24% in the intervention group without DASH and 22% in the group following DASH.

This study shows that people at risk for heart disease can successfully maintain healthy eating and exercise habits that reduce their risk for heart and blood vessel disease. It's one of a growing number of studies showing that lifestyle changes can make a real difference for your health.

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