The leading cause of preventable death isn’t tobacco or drug use. Neither is it bad diet or lack of exercise. It’s high blood pressure, also called hypertension. And it is implicated in many of the cerebral strokes, heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases that account for about one-third of all deaths.
Worldwide, one out of every three adults has high blood pressure, which kills 9.4 million people each year. If we don’t act, high blood pressure will kill 1 billion during this century.
The World Health Organization is taking action. It is raising awareness by making high blood pressure the theme of the 65th World Health Day on April 7. And it is urging everyone to change their lifestyles to help control high blood pressure.
Eat food low in salt and fat. Exercise. Avoid tobacco and second-hand smoke. Don’t consume so much alcohol that it begins to harm your health. And maintain a healthy body weight. Also, see your physician and faithfully take the medicines he/she may prescribe to treat high blood pressure.
Policymakers can help by raising taxes on tobacco and alcohol, by banning tobacco marketing and indoor smoking, and by warning people about tobacco’s harms. They can work with food companies to reduce the salt and fat content in processed food and encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables. And they can design neighbourhoods and public transit systems that encourage people to walk and bicycle.
High blood pressure is often called a silent killer because most people don’t know they have it until their physicians check them for it. In fact, most people with high blood pressure have no obvious symptoms.
If you think that high blood pressure is just for old people, think again. Many young people have it. And although it is usually associated with men, many women have it as well. In the 37 countries and regions of the WHO Western Pacific Region, one out of every three women older than 24 has it, and it is implicated in 10 percent of women’s deaths during or soon after pregnancy.
WHO is best known for its eradication of smallpox in the 1970s and for its heroic efforts against other infectious diseases such as polio, measles, tuberculosis and HIV.
However, WHO is increasingly pitted against non-communicable diseases – heart attacks, strokes, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases – that account for 63 percent of deaths worldwide.
Recently, WHO and its member states committed themselves to reducing premature deaths from these diseases by 25 percent by 2025. I’m confident that we’ll succeed, but only if we get high blood pressure under control.
Everybody needs to be part of the solution. Governments have especially important roles to play. But it all starts with individuals and families.
On this World Health Day, and every day, know and control your blood pressure.
The author is the World Health Organization regional director for the Western Pacific in Manila