Believe it or not, medical experts used to think our blood pressure was supposed to get higher as we got older. The idea was that we needed higher blood pressure to push our blood through our arteries as they stiffened with age. Now we know that high blood pressure is not inevitable and it’s never good for health. We also know this: Simple changes in diet, exercise and the way we handle stress can do wonders for lowering blood pressure to healthy levels.

Wow Fact

You can defy your family history! A JAMA study found that regular exercise, good diet and other healthy habits reduced hypertension rates by as much as 69 percent among women who had a family history of the condition

Your blood pressure is one of the best barometers of your overall health and one of the best predictors of your risk of illness. While high blood pressure may cause no obvious symptoms, left untreated it can damage blood vessels and the organs they feed, including the heart, kidneys, eyes and brain.

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If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, the medical term for high blood pressure, you have lots of company: More than 65 million adults in this country have the condition (defined as blood pressure of 140/90 or higher). At least 65 million more people are at risk of developing it, either because they have pre-hypertension — their blood pressure is higher than optimal but not quite in the danger zone — or because they have diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or other conditions associated with hypertension.

Age and family history can increase the risk of high blood pressure, but lifestyle is a huge factor too. A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that women with the healthiest lifestyles — good diet, regular exercise, moderate (at most) alcohol consumption, no smoking — had the lowest rates of high blood pressure. And while more is better when it comes to healthy habits, you don’t have to change everything at once. A study in the journal Circulation found that among men taking blood pressure medication, those who adopted just one healthy habit had lower rates of heart disease than those who had no healthy habits.

So start small, and start now.

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