‘Silent killer’ concerns health professionals in Canada: Heart and Stroke survey

At the start of the pandemic, Toronto mother of two, Eva Lannon, traded the hustle and bustle of big city life for a calmer lifestyle in Port Hope, Ont.

“Looking at our lifestyle it was very clear to us that it wasn’t sustainable in terms of, you know, like other families running around, getting stuck on the Gardiner … it was grinding us down,” recalled Lannon.

The move has also helped Lannon live a healthier life. Upon turning 40, she learned from her family doctor during a routine physical that she had developed hypertension, which is blood pressure that is considered higher than normal. There had been no signs.

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“I was stunned to learn from my doctor that I had hypertension,” she said.

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Lannon was a busy working mother leading an active life so the news came as a surprise.

Almost eight million adults in Canada are affected by high blood pressure, or about one in four, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

That number is expected to rise as the population ages because risk of hypertension increases with age. At the same time, more people are being diagnosed at an earlier age.

Increasing rates of high blood pressure and associated risks are a significant concern according to a new national Heart and Stroke survey. Lack of awareness, prevention, detection and treatment, often made worse by the pandemic, were identified as essential areas for improvement to address hypertension.

“What our survey is really telling us, that we’re starting to get a little bit alarmed about, is just the fact that there still remains this gap in terms of public knowledge and in terms of our ability to diagnose, manage, work with our patients to help to treat their high blood pressure in order to prevent those adverse health outcomes,” explained Dr. Dylan Blacquiere, stroke neurologist at the Ottawa Hospital.

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According to the survey, eight in 10 health professionals are worried about high blood pressure in Canada as it is the number one risk factor for stroke and a major risk factor for heart disease. More than seven in 10 health professionals worry that people do not understand what the condition is, or the risks associated with it.

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As well, more than seven in 10 health professionals expressed concern that people do not realize when they develop high blood pressure because there are usually no warning signs.

This was the case for Eva Lannon.

“It’s been traditionally one of the silent killers, so to speak, and that’s because the symptoms of high blood pressure may be very subtle, may be very vague, and oftentimes are not even noticeable at all,” said Blacquiere, adding, “it really isn’t until somebody has a dramatic event like a stroke, for example, that they realize that their blood pressure is even high in the first place.”

It is for this very reason, Blacquiere said, that being able to treat hypertension and being able to manage is a “real opportunity” to make a big difference in terms of health care outcomes.

Moving forward, the health professionals surveyed identified several key areas to best support people who have or are at risk of developing high blood pressure. These include ensuring access to regular care and follow-up with health professionals, ensuring access to routine blood pressure screening, and ensuring universal access to medication, including high blood pressure medications.

Just a few years after Lannon learned she had hypertension, her mother died due to a stroke with complications.

It was a wake-up call.

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“I understood from my doctor that hypertension affects East Asian women particularly and my mom later developed a stroke and she eventually passed away and so taking things that much more seriously and being aware and making some lifestyle changes,” she said.

Watching her salt intake, exercising more frequently and the move to Port Hope are among the changes Lannon said she made.

I think an important message for all Canadians is to take stock of your lifestyle and get exercise and build it into your schedule … also watch your salt intake and realize that certain demographics are more predisposed to hypertension and so talk to your doctor if you have any other risk factors that you should be aware of and make the lifestyle change,” said Lannon.

For Lannon and her family, leaving Toronto in search of a quieter, smaller community helped in a major way.

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“It’s not always an option for everybody. But I think just taking stock of your life and realize that you have to make the changes to make sure that you’re healthy.”

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