Surgeon General issues ‘Call to Action’ addressing uncontrolled blood pressure

FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2018, file photo, Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks during a National African American History Month reception hosted by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The nation's chief doctor wants more Americans to start carrying the overdose antidote naloxone in an effort to combat the nation's opioid crisis. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Adams is expected to speak about the public health advisory Thursday, April 5, at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – They call it the “silent killer”…high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension. 

Half of U.S. adults have hypertension and the latest statistics show the condition is the leading contributing cause of death for nearly 500,000 people per year.  

News 8 spoke with Surgeon General Vice Adm. Jerome Adams about his new Call to Action report, which addresses what healthy blood pressure numbers are versus unhealthy ones and what you can do to help yourself and others to prevent chronic diseases associated with it.

Gillis: Tell us about the findings of your report and why is this coming out now?

Adams: That’s a great question to start with “why now” in the midst of a pandemic? I want people to understand that 200,000 people have tragically died from COVID-19. But we can’t forget that 500,000 people die every year with high blood pressure as the primary or secondary cause of their death certificate and I also want people to know that control of high blood pressure is low in this country and it’s going in the wrong direction. 

Eighty percent of Hispanics and Black Americans in this country do not have their blood pressure under control. But we’ve never had better tools, better resources or better knowledge to deal with this epidemic of uncontrolled blood pressure.

This is my blood pressure cuff that I use to monitor my blood pressure. It actually sends my Bluetooth results to my cell phone and then I can send them to my doctor. I want people to understand that you have generic medications that cost pennies. And I want people to understand that we’re starting to realize that because of COVID-19 the importance of social support. [Social support] helps people go out and safely exercise or know they can eat healthy foods. That puts some wind in our sails to really turn around this unfortunate epidemic of hypertension in this country. 

Gillis: I just want to circle back to your blood pressure monitor, how accurate and how reliable are those when they are on the market?

Adams: Well, you can go to the American Medical Association’s website and they have a list of different monitors that they recommend. But most of the ones out there right now are pretty good. If you go to your Walgreens CVS, Costco or Walmart–all of those ones are going to be high quality. And the honest truth is we know feel people who take their blood pressure out of the hospital or outside the clinic have a better handle on their blood pressure than people who just wait for that one time a year when they go into their doctor because some people can have artificially high or artificially low blood pressures when they are in their doctor’s office.

I take mine sometimes in the morning, sometimes at night, sometimes after work, sometimes after a meal and I find that it can fluctuate and that all helps me and my doctor come up with a plan that is best for me.

Gillis: So, I know you’re a big proponent of prevention so I want to talk about the process of preventing hypertension because we don’t want to go to a neurologist because we’ve had a stroke. We want to prevent the stroke. We don’t want to go to a cardiologist because we need heart surgery. We want to prevent heart surgery. Can you talk about that in terms of your own thoughts and in terms of our healthcare system?

Adams: Well, this is something that deeply affects me personally. I lost all four of my grandparents due to disease that were exacerbated by high blood pressure. One to stroke, one to heart attack and two to dementia. A lot of people don’t understand that there’s more and more data showing that uncontrolled blood pressure is not just a cardiovascular disease, but to early onset dementia, to sexual and reproductive problems. There are an array of issues that can impact your life and so we want to prevent these instead of waiting for them to occur

My mother had a stroke earlier this year and I’ve been dealing with high blood pressure for several years now. But I want to get my blood pressure under control so that fortunately down the road my kids will be able to not have to worry about their dad or their mother having these unfortunate outcomes.

In this report…the Call to Action…we list ways in which not just individuals can control their blood pressure, but the ways communities have to do. And you mentioned prevention. We need to make sure we are creating an environment that makes the healthy choice the easy choice for people and we’re paying providers and other partners out there to be able to do some of these preventive things than waiting for people to pick themselves up. 

Gillis: So, just a question about physiology. We know a lot of studies have been done in terms of blood pressure. We now have the norms…we want less than 120/80. But these are done in white males. What about the physiology between different races and ethnicities? Could 140/90 be typically okay for someone who just has a different physiology?

Adams: That is a great question. I want people to know that the current cut off we have is 130/80. With that said, when we look at the research, lower is better and in most cases the lower you can get your blood pressure the longer a life you will live.

I want people to understand blood pressure is about the pressure being put on the arteries and your arteries feed your brain, they feed your kidneys, they feed your organs and over time with each beat of that heart you’re putting pressure on your arteries the same way we would on a water hose. The higher the pressure the sooner that hose is going to wear out and the more you’re going to be damaging whatever is at the end of that hose. 

So, it’s important for you to know your numbers and we want to try to get our blood pressure certainly under 130/80. It’s the new cut off for high blood pressure. But the studies show that even if you can get below that 130/80 equates to less disease and a longer life. 

Gillis: Health behavior change is very difficult. First we need to be aware of situation and then we need to understand it, we need to see if it’s relevant to us and our perception of risk. How do we get people from behavioral intention to actual behavior change? Because your report is a Call to Action

Adams: Well, one of the things we want people to understand is that we all need to take on some personal responsibility, but the choices that people make are 100% dependent on the choices people have around them. So, one of the things I talk about is about the impact on employers. If people with uncontrolled high blood pressure cost employers $300 per person per year…so if you look at environmental things that employers can do like changing the foods in the snack machine or making the stairs more accessible and more well-lit so people can take the stairs or creating a walking path outside of work or making sure the salad at the cafeteria doesn’t cost 10 times as much as the french fries.

These are all little things we can do to create an environment, which will allow people to help people make healthier choices. And that’s what we’ve got to do. This is a marathon and not a sprint, but we can’t finish the marathon if we don’t start it. And we all can start it individually, but we can also start it as communities and it’s other groups out there that have leverage. That’s why there are multiple sector guides in my Call to Action that providers, health care systems, employers as well as individuals and communities can take. 

Gillis: That’s really interesting because I used to tell clients or patients that it’s action first and the motivation will come. 

Adams:  Yes. And we also need to make it a family affair. When we talk about motivation…my daughter actually sees me taking my blood pressure and she will take her blood pressure or when she sees me getting stressed out she’ll say “Daddy, take your blood pressure” and she’ll then encourage me to go outside and go for bike ride or on a walk with her. That motivation doesn’t necessarily mean chasing a number. That motivation should be about trying to create an environment and an opportunity for you to take as much time as possible enjoying the things that you want to enjoy in life. And then again, making it a family affair makes it seem less like work and more like something we are doing together and for ourselves. 

And we have to understand In the midst of all this sadness, there’s lots of reasons for hope. We can get COVID-19 under control. We can get blood pressure under control. We can get our flu shots to make sure we have a mild flu season. And we’ll get through this together. 

Gillis: We will. And thank you again and I hope to see you again soon. We would welcome you  back. Don’t forget about us, okay?

Adams:  Absolutely. Call me anytime. I’m always happy to talk to my peeps in Indy!

For more information on blood pressure and what you can do to control it, click here.  

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 5 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Instagram @reportergillis and Facebook @DrMaryGillis.