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High Blood Pressure FAQ

High blood pressure FAQs.
Eating Well - June 04, 2015

Is high blood pressure a normal part of aging?

Blood pressure tends to rise with age, and Americans have a 90 percent chance of developing high blood pressure at some point in life, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health). Still, one should not just assume that high blood pressure is a routine part of aging. While age and genetic factors are involved in developing high blood pressure, it’s likely that lifestyle factors—excess salt, overweight or obesity, inadequate physical activity and poor diet—play a big, and even dominant, role. High blood pressure develops gradually over time, and people with “normal” blood pressure are those who manage to keep it below the threshold for hypertension by making smart lifestyle choices. Reducing sodium intake, exercising more and eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy and lean meats can make a significant difference in reducing the risk of high blood pressure.

Why might dairy products be helpful in lowering blood pressure?

Dairy products, as long as they are low in sodium, provide a good mix of calcium, potassium and magnesium—all nutrients that are important for controlling blood pressure. Calcium enters body cells and influences how blood vessels tighten and relax. Magnesium supports muscles, nerves and heart rhythm. Potassium works with calcium and magnesium to keep heart muscle toned, and strengthens arteries to endure as we age. Potassium also acts like a bouncer, barring sodium from entering places where its sidekick, water, can cause unwanted swelling. Each of these nutrients alone plays a small role, but together their impact is huge. Aim for two to three servings of dairy a day: one cup of low-fat milk or nonfat yogurt counts as a serving.

I've heard that dark chocolate helps lower blood pressure. Can this great news be true?

It’s true that some research suggests cocoa may help lower blood pressure. It appears that compounds in cocoa (called flavanols) boost nitric oxide, a substance that has been shown to be crucial to healthy blood vessels. Plentiful levels of nitric oxide help keep blood pressure from climbing. These findings probably aren’t a reason to start eating chocolate if you don’t already. You’ll get many of the same disease-fighting substances from drinking tea or wine and eating fruits and vegetables, which are loaded with antioxidants. Chocolate, because it is relatively high in fat and is usually sweetened with sugar, does pack a fair amount of calories. A 1.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate contains about 225 calories—enough to keep it a special treat, not a regular food group. (And be sure to choose dark chocolate, ideally one that’s 70 percent cocoa solids; milk chocolate lacks significant levels of flavanols.)

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