Controlling blood pressure – the force of circulating blood on the walls of the arteries – is an important way to maintain good heart health in seniors. That’s especially important because the risk of high blood pressure and low blood pressure in elderly increases with age.
Avoiding high blood pressure, called hypertension, can help seniors prevent strokes, heart disease, kidney failure, vision problems and other serious health conditions. Preventing low blood pressure, called hypotension, can help seniors avoid dizziness, lightheadedness, falls and shock.
Know Your Numbers
Blood pressure readings contain two numbers, a top number and a bottom number. The top number is the most important for seniors, because it often rises despite the bottom number remaining low, a condition called isolated systolic hypertension.
Prior to 2017, 140/90 or less was the recommended blood pressure for seniors age 65 to 79, with 145/90 or less recommended for people age 80 or older. But updated guidelines released by the American Heart Association and other organizations no longer give different recommendations based on age. According to the guidelines, the new normal blood pressure for seniors (and everyone else) is less than 120/80. Blood pressure is generally considered too low if it dips below 90/60.
What Causes High Blood Pressure in the Elderly
High blood pressure is the most common chronic condition among older adults. Factors that contribute to a senior’s risk include:
- Aging: As people age, their arteries may become stiffer, making it more difficult for blood to pass through and causing blood pressure to rise.
- Being overweight: Excess weight makes the heart work harder in order to pump blood throughout the body, which can raise blood pressure.
- Certain diseases: People with diabetes or chronic kidney disease are more likely to develop high blood pressure.
- Genetics: A family history of high blood pressure increases a person’s risk of developing it. A person’s race can also increase their risk. For example, African Americans are more likely to develop high blood pressure than others.
- Lifestyle habits: Nicotine use, a poor diet and lack of exercise increase a person’s risk of high blood pressure.
How to Lower Blood Pressure in the Elderly
Seniors don’t have to settle for life with hypertension. Making these changes can help lower high blood pressure:
- Quit smoking: People who smoke are more likely to have high blood pressure. It’s never too late to quit.
- Eat healthier: Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as low-fat dairy products and whole grains, can help you lose weight and can lower your blood pressure. Eating less salt and less saturated fat and drinking less alcohol can also help.
- Exercise more: Seniors with high blood pressure should get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days – if not every day – to help lose weight and lower blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about what kind of exercise is most appropriate.
- Take medication: If lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to bring down your blood pressure, your doctor will prescribe medication as well. Taking blood pressure medication is very common. There are many different types available, including diuretics, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors. Seniors may need to try a few medications (as advised by their doctors), alone or in combination, to find what works best for them.
What Causes Low Blood Pressure in the Elderly
Low blood pressure in the elderly is less common than high blood pressure and is usually only considered a problem if it causes symptoms. If you feel faint, lightheaded or weak, it could be a sign that your blood pressure is too low and that you should call your doctor. Potential reasons for low blood pressure in the elderly include:
- A sudden rise: Standing up quickly is the most common cause of low blood pressure in the elderly.
- Prolonged bed rest: Inactivity can lead to low blood pressure.
- Meals: Seniors are more likely to experience low blood pressure after eating than younger people are.
- Dehydration: Losing too much water can cause blood pressure to take a nosedive.
- Certain health problems: Heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, allergic reactions and infections increase the risk of low blood pressure.
- Medication: Sometimes medication for lowering high blood pressure can lower it too much, resulting in blood pressure that is too low. Other medications, including some that treat depression, Parkinson’s disease and erectile dysfunction, can also cause sudden drops in blood pressure.
How to Raise Blood Pressure in the Elderly
Hypotension can be treated. Making these changes can help raise low blood pressure in the elderly:
- Rise more carefully: Take time to slowly move from lying down to sitting, and from sitting to standing.
- Get more exercise: Moving more, and avoid long periods of sitting or standing still.
- Eat more slowly: Eating smaller meals more frequently, and taking time to finish them, can stop blood pressure from dropping too much.
- Add some salt: Just as people with high blood pressure benefit from lowering their salt intake, those with low blood pressure benefit from increasing theirs.
- Drink more water: This is especially important when it’s hot out or during illness.
- Talk to your doctor: If a health problem or medication is causing low blood pressure, your doctor can advise you about how to manage the situation.
Changing habits isn’t easy. But it’s worth it, because achieving and maintaining the recommended blood pressure can help you live a longer, healthier life.