Here’s a cheery thought for all of you who have not yet reached advanced middle age: 65 percent of Americans over the age of 60 have high blood pressure.
I’m one of them — at least according to my last interaction with a healthcare professional. At 148/88, I fall into a category called “isolated systolic hypertension” or, appropriately enough, ISH. Now, I would argue that if My Lovely Wife walked into the room as I’m typing this and slapped the cuff around my bicep, that reading would slide down into a more “normal” range. For some reason, whenever I walk into a doctor’s office my heart rate soars. It’s called “white coat syndrome”.
Still, I could be fooling myself. My dad had high blood pressure, a trait I know he passed on to my older brothers. I wouldn’t be surprised if my two younger siblings are stuck with it as well. So, I was encouraged the other day when I stumbled upon the results of a study from George Washington University (GWU) suggesting that ISH-inflicted geezers like me aren’t necessarily going to keel over from a stroke or heart disease anytime soon. All we have to do is exercise a little.
And it doesn’t matter how fit you happen to be at the moment. Researchers surveyed 2,153 men over the age of 70 at all fitness levels, measuring their peak MET levels, or metabolic equivalents (the amount of oxygen your body uses per kilogram of weight per minute of exertion) and herding them into four fitness groups: very low (1–4 METs), low (4.1–6), moderate (6.1–8) and high (8 or higher). They found that raising your activity level by even a single MET lowered your risk of dying by 11 percent.
That may not seem like a major longevity bonus, but Peter Kokkinos, Ph.D, a professor at GWU’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center and senior author of the study, noted in a statement released by the university that the exercise remedy is particularly stunning when you compare those who do it regularly with those who don’t. Here’s how these groups compared with the most sedentary men when they added 1 MET to their activity level:
• Low-fit men had an 18 percent lower risk of death.
• Moderately fit men lowered their risk by 36 percent.
• High-fit geezers dropped their risk by almost half (48 percent).
A 50-year-old couch potato registers a peak MET level of 5 or 6 (you can check your METs here, if you’re curious), so I figure my basic fitness regimen would put me in the 8-to-10 range, among the more active oldsters. (Kokkinos notes that endurance runners and cyclists can have METs in the 20s, so I can’t be too smug.) No matter where you fall on this fitness continuum, remember this: All it takes to raise your MET levels when you hit middle age is a little more moderate exercise. Even a brisk walk around the block can make a difference, if done regularly.
I can feel my blood pressure dropping already.