In a new study from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine-Greenville, researchers found that people who saw their doctors at least twice a year were more than three times as likely to keep their high blood pressure stable than those who made fewer appointments.
“Folks who have more office visits are more likely to be aware they have high blood pressure, more likely to be treated for it, and it’s more likely to be controlled when they are treated,” says study author Brent Egan, M.D. That’s because their docs can begin treatment and adjust meds as necessary during follow-up visits.
Blood pressure counts as high if it’s over 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). The first number is your systolic pressure—the pressure when your heart is pumping blood. The second number measures your diastolic pressure, which is when your heart is between beats.
If your blood pressure is out of whack—160/100 mm Hg or higher—you may need to see your doc every 2 weeks until it’s stabilized, or under 140/90. For mildly elevated cases where it’s close to controlled—say, 140-159/90-99 mm Hg—every month is fine, though you may be able to stretch it to every 2 if you fall in the low end of the range.
If your BP is well-controlled, you can wait every 3 or even 6 months, especially if you don’t have any other health problems.
It makes sense that seeing your doc helps you maintain a stable blood pressure. But you might not necessarily need a one-on-one with your M.D. to keep it that way. For some guys, self-monitoring blood pressure at home can be a way to track your BP readings without having to go into the office as frequently, says Dr. Egan.
Choosing the Best Device
First, you’ll want to pick an at-home monitor that makes the grade—which may be a little tricky: New research that will be presented at the American Society for Nephrology’s annual meeting this month found that 8 percent of at-home blood-pressure devices were inaccurate, meaning their systolic readings were off by more than 10 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). That could mean the difference between thinking you have a pre-hypertensive systolic reading of 135, and an actual hypertensive reading of 145—a significant jump.
The researchers tested whichever monitors patients were currently using at home, so some of the mistakes could have been due to wear and tear on older machines, says study author Swapnil Hiremat, M.D., M.P.H. Before you start logging your own readings, bring in your device to your doctor’s office so he can compare its readings to his tried-and-true method.
What should you buy in the first place? Dr. Egan recommends choosing a monitor that’s vetted by the Dabl Educational Trust and the European Society of Hypertension —check out the list at dableducational.org. And make it an upper-arm monitor, not a wrist one, which Dr. Egan says isn’t as accurate. You should be able to purchase an accurate BP monitor for around $50.
Taking the Right Reading
Once you’ve got a good machine, make sure you test correctly: Put your feet on the floor and straighten your back with arms supported at heart level. Give yourself 5 minutes to rest quietly before slapping on the cuff.
Because blood pressure can fluctuate, it’s a good idea to take at least two readings each time and log all of the results, says Dr. Egan. Try to take readings in the morning, midday, and evening so you can see how your BP changes throughout the day.
So how often should you fire up the machine? If your blood pressure is moderately uncontrolled—i.e. it sometimes veers a little over 140/90 mm Hg—you should log your readings for one week out of every month. If your BP is borderline (systolic between 120 and 139 and diastolic between 80 and 89), check for one week out of every 3 months.
“People in that range are more likely to develop high blood pressure in the future, and even if they don’t, they’re still at a greater risk of heart attack or stroke,” says Dr. Egan. That’s why it’s important to maintain a healthy weight, eat right, and exercise regularly—as well as keep your doctor up-to-date on your BP.
So make sure you relay the info to your doc, either by emailing him your log (some apps create fancy graphs you can send off) or calling his office to report any deviations. Ask him when—and how often—he’d like you to check in.
One exception: If your BP skyrockets to 180/110 mm Hg or above, he’ll want to know right away, says Dr. Egan.