A study of people from 12 high-income countries found that men and women from Ireland were least likely to have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, given medication to treat the condition or have it controlled.

Irish men ranked second for the prevalence of hypertension, at 56 percent. Only Finland, at 59 percent, was worse. Irish women ranked fourth, at 43 percent, according to the study, published in the Lancet.

High blood pressure is one of the most important risk factors for stroke, heart disease, and kidney disease, but it can be treated effectively with medication.

The study by scientists at Imperial College London looked at 123 national surveys conducted over the past 40 years, involving more than 525,000 people aged 40-80.

Amid wide variations in performance, Canada, Germany, South Korea, and the US had the highest levels of awareness, treatment and control, while Finland, Ireland, Japan and Spain had the lowest.

Lagging behind
Just 56 percent of Irish women had been tested for hypertension, compared with 86 percent in the US and 87 percent in Germany. The corresponding figure for Irish men was 46 percent, well below the highest figure of 84 percent, recorded in Canada.

Just 17 percent of Irish men with high blood pressure had it under control with medication, compared with 69 percent in Canada, the study found. The equivalent figure for women in Ireland was 26 percent.

Picture the last time your doctor checked your blood pressure. Were you sitting in a chair? Were you relaxed? Were you silent? Did your doctor or nurse take more than one reading?

Chances are, the answer to one or more of these questions is “no” — which means there’s a good probability your blood pressure reading was wrong.

Blood pressure measurement is one of the most common and high-stakes tests in medicine. Getting it right can be a matter of life or death because high blood pressure leads to serious diseases like heart attacks, strokes, erectile dysfunction, even dementia. More than 1,100 people in the US die each day from diseases caused by high blood pressure, and one in five adults don’t know they have it. A faulty reading can mean not catching an early warning sign.

The American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association have guidelines with steps that health professionals are supposed to follow to get accurate measurements. But they are notoriously bad at sticking to them.

“We wouldn’t fly on a plane where the pilot said, ‘I’m going to ignore the guidelines I have for safe travel,” said Dr. Paul Whelton, a professor at Tulane University and chair of the writing committee for updated US guidelines on blood pressure. “But that’s exactly the situation we have today with respect to blood pressure measurement.”

The only way to know whether you have high blood pressure is by getting an accurate reading. Yet the current data suggests only half of people with high blood pressure in the United States are able to get their blood pressure under safe limits, in part because improper measurement of blood pressure leads to the wrong diagnosis.

That’s why US blood pressure guidelines were recently updated for the first time in 14 years. Among other changes, the guidelines double down on correct blood pressure measuring technique, recommend the use of automated blood pressure machines, and suggest measurements outside of the doctor’s office — all in the hopes of saving lives. It’s a significant moment in what’s now an international movement to take blood pressure more seriously.

There is a reason for the hope that health professionals in the US can do better. Just look to Canada, which now has the largest proportion of hypertensive patients with their blood pressure under control in the world. It wasn’t always that way — but the fact that they got there suggests other doctors and patients can too.

High blood pressure, explained
Blood pressure is the force that blood exerts on your arteries. With every contraction and relaxation of your heart, the pressure inside your arteries spikes (called systolic blood pressure) and then drops (diastolic blood pressure). A normal blood pressure range is less than 120 mmHg systolic and less than 80 mmHg diastolic — or less than “120 over 80.”

Blood pressure varies from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and year-to-year. But stubbornly high blood pressure becomes dangerous because it can cause arteries to burst, get inflamed, or clog, leading to diseases like heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure.

Many factors come together to cause high blood pressure, some of which you can control and some you can’t. Age, sex, ethnicity, and other health conditions can all affect your risk of high blood pressure — but you can’t change them.

Physical activity, a diet with less salt and more vegetables, not smoking, and maintaining a healthy body weight though can all bring blood pressure down. So can medications in some cases.

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