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Matters of the heart: Spokane women learn about managing blood pressure through Providence’s new Better U

Dotty Johnson of Spokane Valley has a photograph of herself with arms stretched behind eight of nine grandchildren. All of them, ages nearly 6 to 18, serve as Johnson’s motivation to join in a weekly program to improve her blood pressure.

Starting Feb. 9, Johnson and more than 200 participants began a free and weekly virtual-health program called Better U through the Providence Spokane Heart Institute in collaboration with the American Heart Association. Geared to women, the Zoom sessions through March 23 help participants take actions to control blood pressure numbers and improve cardiovascular health.

Many women with high blood pressure don’t realize their numbers are high, Providence says. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to various health threats, including heart attack, vision loss, kidney disease and stroke.

“I am 56 years old, and, at this age, I’ve already outlived both of my grandmothers,” Johnson said. “One grandmother passed at 49 and the other at 52. I never knew a grandmother on either my mother’s or my father’s side. As I get older, that really becomes something I think about because I have four granddaughters, and then my son just got married and I inherited five bonus grandsons.”

A Bouten Construction executive assistant, Johnson has a tradition with her husband of taking each granddaughter who turns 7 on a California trip to San Diego and Disneyland. Johnson said she enjoys spending time with all her grandchildren and activities such as making cookies together. She wants that for many years to come.

“I have nine little people in my life who I just want to be there for, and I want to give them experiences that I didn’t get to experience with a grandmother. Heart disease runs in my family on my dad’s side; that’s what my paternal grandmother passed from.”

Providence offers Better U kits, including free blood pressure cuffs if needed, a chart for tracking and other materials for online topics including how and when to take your blood pressure, healthy diet, reducing salt, improved mental health and physical activity.

As the heart beats, it creates pressure that pushes blood through a network of blood vessels, including arteries, veins and capillaries. High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when the force of blood flowing through blood vessels is consistently too high.

Blood pressure is reported as two numbers: systolic pressure over diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure is the force of blood in the arteries when the heart beats; diastolic pressure is the force when the heart is at rest.

Healthy blood pressure is considered as below 120 systolic pressure and less than 80 diastolic pressure.

Consistently high blood pressure causes friction inside artery walls that can damage the tissue, and plaque begins to build in the tears. The more plaque and damage, the narrower the insides of the arteries become, which in turn raises blood pressure. It can become a vicious cycle.

Many of the Better U participants sounded shocked at first to hear what they thought was an acceptable number, such as near 140 systolic pressure, really isn’t, said Gretchen James, a cardiology physician assistant with Providence Spokane Heart Institute and medical expert in the virtual program. In fact, there were many questions the first night in Better U about what’s considered a normal range.

“A lot of people thought if my blood pressure is somewhere around 145, I’m probably OK, but that’s definitely Stage 2 hypertension and needs to be addressed by their primary care provider,” James said.

Providence aimed Better U’s start in February, traditionally AHA’s Go Red for Women initiative month. The institute also worked with Spokane’s INHS Community Wellness to help tailor the program for its regional audience. People need to be aware of risk factors, James said, and routine medical visits aren’t occurring as often since the pandemic started.

“We definitely are seeing that people aren’t going in for what people perceive as more routine appointments, which is really unfortunate because we’re missing screening signs such as women with high blood pressure,” James said.

“Women in particular have kind of always felt they’re not affected by heart disease like men are, but that’s really not true,” James said. “They’re actually the No. 1 killer of women when you lump heart disease and stroke together. High blood pressure is kind of at the heart of heart disease and stroke for the most part, so it’s really important for any woman or any person to start knowing their numbers by age 20.”

Women during pregnancy also can have complications when in their 20s, 30s and 40s and don’t realize what that can mean in the future regarding high blood pressure.

“If you have high blood pressure or preeclampsia, the chances of you developing hypertension later in life is almost 100%, and it can be way earlier. That goes for gestational diabetes, as well. It’s a matter of knowing your risk factors for heart disease.”

Johnson said after a knee replacement surgery more than two years ago, her longtime health practitioner noticed a trend of high blood pressure. That practitioner urged regular monitoring, with Johnson regularly taking her blood pressure with a cuff at home.

She also started on blood pressure medication about eight months ago, but Johnson’s goal now is to end that through a better diet, exercise and stress management.

When her monitoring started, Johnson said her blood pressure was consistently trending in the 160s or 170s over the 90s. A recent reading was at 158 over 89, she said. In the first Better U session, she learned new strategies.

“It was interesting to learn to take my blood pressure at the same time every day, which I hadn’t really thought of too much before, and to relax for a minute and be mindful with yourself a few minutes to calm yourself before you take it,” she said.

“I’m really excited to learn more in the coming weeks in the class as to how I can take better control of this myself. We have a fitness room in my office that’s finally opened to one of us at a time. I can go in there at 5 a.m. in the morning and try to put in time on the treadmill to do what I can because nobody wants to be on medication. I certainly don’t.”

Providence has created a website for the Better U challenge that has more information and a video to learn specific tips to monitor blood pressure at home.

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