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A Heart to Heart Chat about Blood Pressure

by Charlie Spence, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

The heart and eyes are two of the most important elements of a flight physical. If you have problems—or think you might have problems—with either, don’t become discouraged. Remember, the FAA wants you to keep flying so long as you are not a danger to yourself or to the general public.

Blood pressure is one key, not only for your heart but also for your eyes because it can damage the small blood vessels in the retina. If during a flight exam the blood pressure readings stay consistently lower than 155/95 all is well. Anything higher than that requires action. Initially, you might be asked nothing more than to take blood pressure readings twice a day (morning and evening) for three days. If four of the six readings show below 155/95, again all is well.

If the three-day blood pressure checks are higher than the qualifying numbers, further steps need to be taken and with them you will probably be able to get that coveted medical certificate. Your family physician can often get you on a medication regimen that will adequately control high blood pressure. Once stabilized without any significant adverse effects, certification can again be considered.

The cause of high blood pressure in most people is unclear. About one in every four American adults has it, so unless you take the right precautions, there’s a one in four chance blood pressure questions can affect your coming flight physicals, not to mention other aspects of your life.

Getting around a problem is never as good as avoiding it all together. So what can you do to keep blood pressure under control? Just take some sensible steps.

  • Keep your weight under control. Being overweight can make you from two to six times more likely to develop high blood pressure than if you stay within your acceptable limits. Knocking off even just a few pounds can help you prevent high blood pressure. Also important is to eat a proper diet. One step is to cut down on the amount of salt. If your blood pressure is high, reducing your salt intake will help to reduce it. If it is at acceptable levels, reducing salt intake, will help to keep it that way. Before you undertake a new diet, be sure to check with your personal physician.
  • Get regular exercise. You can lower the risk of getting high blood pressure by 20 to 50 percent if you avoid being a couch potato (or in today’s lingo more of a computer cucumber) and get some regular exercise. Doctors say this doesn’t mean you must run marathons or become a tri-athlete. Doing daily light physical activities can help to keep those numbers in line.
  • Keep your alcohol consumption under control. There is an FAA regulation of the allowed time between bottle and throttle, and setting limits on drinking at other times can help keep blood pressure problems away. Experts say men should limit their intake to no more than two drinks a day. According to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” women should keep it to no more than one drink a day.
  • Stress can make your blood pressure go up. Money and economy concerns are major causes of stress. As the economy worsens, stress levels rise. According to surveys by the American Psychological Association reported in WEB MD, the top stressors for Americans are money—81%--and the economy—80%. If you find stress starting to raise your blood pressure check with your doctor and try some steps to focus on other interests. Take up a new hobby, try something creative such as art or writing, get a pet, or do some volunteer work.

So, don’t worry about that next physical. It will add stress, and stress over time can contribute to high blood pressure.

The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Charles Spence assume any responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or others on your behalf take based on the information given in this article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may have.