By Hyun Namkoong

After surviving their first week in the legislature, lawmakers and lobbyists at the General Assembly got their blood pressure checked for free on Wednesday.

High blood pressure has long been recognized as an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke, which are the second- and fourth-leading causes of death in North Carolina.

That’s why Gov. Pat McCrory proclaimed May 21 as Hypertension/High Blood Pressure Day in the state, and physicians and medical students from UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University came to the legislature to help lawmakers keep their blood pressure in check.

Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) gets his blood pressure checked.
Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) gets his blood pressure checked. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Cleveland Piggott, a medical student from UNC-Chapel Hill, measured the blood pressure of Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham).

“I think it’s very important to do,” Luebke said. “The check-up is very helpful.”

After being told by Piggott that his blood pressure was high, he said, “There are some issues I need to address. I’m awfully glad this is here.”

“It’s important to educate the public and policymakers of the importance of hypertension,” said Brian Forrest, a family physician in Apex and a member of the Justus-Warren Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Task Force.

North Carolinians suffer from higher than average rates of obesity, diabetes, tobacco use and physical inactivity, all of which are associated with hypertension.

“Keeping and maintaining a healthy weight – that is probably the single-most important thing for controlling blood pressure,” Forrest said.

In 2010, hypertension cost the state more than $5 billion in medical care and lost work productivity. Risk factors for hypertension such as physical inactivity and obesity cost the state almost $26 billion, more than the entire GDP for the state of Vermont.

medical student who was taking blood pressures at the legislature
Medical student Sam Heathcote measured blood pressures for legislators and lobbyists. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Silent killer

“High blood pressure is the silent killer,” said Sam Heathcote, a third-year medical student at UNC-Chapel Hill, noting that it often goes unnoticed and untreated for a long time.

“[Most people] don’t feel anything at all, so they feel perfectly fine,” Forrest said. “But it’s doing damage, even when it’s only elevated 15 or 20 points. It’s damaging your arteries and can cause damage to your kidneys and heart.”

Charles Neely, a lawyer who lobbies on tax-related issues, found out his blood pressure was slightly higher than normal, at 146 over 96. His systolic number, 146, is a measurement of the pressure in his blood vessels when his heart is beating. Neely’s diastolic number, 96, measures pressure when his heart rests between beats.

He attributed the increase to the “stress-ridden environment” in the legislature.

“Everybody should know their number, just like you know your height and weight,” said Kathy Neal, health-communications coordinator for the Carolinas Center for Medical Excellence.

baconeggcheeseSodium in the South

The doctors also displayed posters about controlling sodium intake and understanding nutritional labels regarding the sodium content in processed foods to inform people of the role diet plays in hypertension.

“The Southeast in general is called the stroke belt,” Forrest said. “It tends to be a slightly higher sodium diet, and sodium does play a role in hypertension.”

The posters showed how much sodium is found in foods such as pretzels; spaghetti with meat sauce; and a bacon, egg and cheese English muffin. A bacon, egg and cheese English muffin contains 800 mg of sodium. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily.

“Hypertension is one of the most serious causes of diseases and death in North Carolina,” Forrest said.

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Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.