OPINION: Hypertension is a real issue with real serious consequences

By Eric PilgrimFebruary 21, 2024

FORT KNOX, Ky. — I’ve become a bit obsessive about my blood pressure numbers.

Often bragging in the past about being medically illiterate, I never concerned myself with my health. Chock it up to being raised by a rugged outdoorsman father. Or maybe it was joining the Army and starting my military career in the Infantry, where in basic training we lived and breathed a world of “Embrace the suck!” and “Take that hill – again!” and “It’s mind over matter – I don’t mind, and you don’t matter.”

That kind of mindset has a way of drilling deep into your psyche and permeating your misunderstanding of health and a lackadaisical attitude about it.

Author warns hypertension is a real issue with real serious consequences
Automatic blood pressure monitors are easy to purchase at pharmacies and stores for a moderate cost. Those who receive medical attention through Veterans Affairs may also qualify to receive one free. A few seconds of testing can make a lifetime of difference. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of A. Gail Pilgrim) VIEW ORIGINAL

So, in 2007 when my doctor told me I had borderline hypertension, I was like, “Uh, what’s that?” with my classic follow-up line, “I’m medically illiterate.”

Turns out, hypertension is a big $5 word for high blood pressure, and the doc decided that I needed to be on what he called “baby aspirin.” What a horrible name for a hard-charging chairborne ranger like me (I had moved over to Public Affairs after four years in the Infantry).

“Baby aspirin? Uh, okay, doc.”

Begrudgingly I took the baby aspirin along with some high cholesterol medicine, all designed to lower my blood pressure and overall cholesterol number. I vowed to never tell anyone about the aspirin; I had my reputation to think about.

Then something unexpected happened.

I had what is best described as side effects, or a reaction. The combination of the medicines left me with dizzy spells and a flushed tingly feeling across my face.

In my thinking, that was exactly what I needed – an excuse to ditch the medicines.

So, I did. Throwing caution to the wind, I went au natural – sans medication. I didn’t tell the doc, didn’t have to because I had moved on, PCS’ing to Germany and a bigger role with bigger responsibilities and bigger issues in preparation for a deployment to Iraq.

Upon returning to Germany 10 months after deploying – my lower back went out and they had to medivac me home. I connected with my wife, we got married, had two kids, I retired from the Army, and continued my amazing mind trick of forgetting about all that high-brow medical stuff.

Author warns hypertension is a real issue with real serious consequences
The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association have divided blood pressure into four categories. (Photo Credit: Illustration by Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox News) VIEW ORIGINAL

According to the Mayo Clinic, hypertension is a common condition, especially among older people, where the effort needed to push blood through your artery walls gets raised: “The heart has to work harder to pump blood.”

The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association have divided blood pressure into four categories, ranging from normal lower than 120/80 to Stage 2 hypertension at 140/90 or higher. Anything higher than 180/120 is considered a crisis.

What all that means to you and me is that consistent high blood pressure left untreated increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and several other serious conditions. Mayo Clinic expert Dr. Leslie Thomas recommends people check their blood pressure at least every two years starting at age 18.

Refusing to take hypertension seriously can end badly. In 2021, 691,095 people living in the United States would’ve agreed with that statement – if they had made it to 2022.

Truth be told I’m fortunate to be here writing about this today. Seventeen years after my first encounter with hypertension, maybe I’ve become a little wiser. Maybe.

My current doctor recently diagnosed me with hypertension – no surprise. But this time I didn’t ask what that was, didn’t follow up with “I’m medically illiterate.” Instead, I embraced it and started plotting my numbers – daily, sometimes twice a day. I’m also taking a low-dose blood pressure medicine and seeing how it affects those numbers.

What I’m learning is that hypertension is a real issue and real serious: an issue not to be ignored. It’s also an issue that can be governed and controlled, in many cases by simply eating the right foods, getting quality sleep and exercising regularly.

I guess you could say I’m no longer medically illiterate.