Scott Brinton

Confronting the ‘silent killer’

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My ears were ringing on March 7, so I thought I might have an ear infection. I hurried to an urgent care center, thinking I’d grab an antibiotic and be at work the next day. I was wrong.

A friendly doctor’s assistant took my blood pressure first thing. I became increasingly anxious as the machine squeezed my arm tighter and tighter.

My pressure was 205/110.

The assistant seemed stunned. I was stunned. He tried again, saying the gauge might be off, but my pressure was unchanged the second try. He brought the doctor immediately.

Any chest pain, trouble breathing? the doctor asked, speaking deliberately and looking a little concerned. No and no.

Dizziness? No. Nausea? No. Blurred vision? No.

My heart was beating normally, my lungs were clear and my breathing was steady, the doctor noted. He gave me a pill to lower my blood pressure, and said I should see my general practitioner immediately. If I were overweight and out of shape, he said, he might offer different directions, but he didn’t elaborate on what those might be, and I didn’t ask. I needn’t worry, he assured me.

I was lucky, he added. Many people don’t realize they have high blood pressure, which can cause a heart attack or stroke. That’s why hypertension, as it’s also called, is often referred to as the “silent killer.”

I wound up seeing a number of doctors and nurses that day, and they kept asking if there was any significant source of stress in my life. I’m a newspaper editor, I told them again and again. Enough said. Even still, this BP spike seemingly came out of nowhere.

I run four or five days a week, and walk two to three miles a day. I ride a bike. I play tennis. I had no reason to think my BP would shoot up like that.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a column called “Have a heart: Choose your lifestyle wisely” (Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2017), in which I detailed my experience having my first echocardiogram.

“I turned 50 in July,” I began, “so I decided — or, rather, my general practitioner decided — that I must have an echocardiogram, essentially a video of the heart at work, created by a transducer that sends sound waves through the chest that ‘echo’ back . . .

“My grandfather on my mom’s side died in his 50s, after his third heart attack. My dad was 55 when his chest was opened to make way for a triple bypass, the first in a line of surgeries that stretched over the decades until he died 33 years later, of heart failure . . .

“Age 50, I had long feared, might be a point of inflection for me, a moment in time when the course of my life changed for the worse. What would this test tell me? Would it show a narrowing or hardening artery? An undetected weakness?”

It showed nothing of the kind. My heart was strong. My BP was 120/80. Yet there I was, only a year and a half later, with a BP level that WebMD describes as “malignant hypertension,” capable of damaging organs. Why?

I underwent several tests in South Nassau Communities Hospital’s emergency room. So did my wife. Her blood pressure rose to a potentially dangerous level when she heard that mine was soaring. So she was admitted to the ER as well. Neither of us had organ damage. Five days later, we were mostly fine.

An ER physician’s assistant ran through my diet with me. It was too salty, he concluded.

Salty? I’d spent my adult life worrying about cholesterol, which had killed my grandfather and blocked up my dad’s heart, but I had given no thought to salt.

Oh, but there it was — salt everywhere I turned. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, your sodium intake should average 1,500 milligrams a day and never exceed 2,300 mg. One Greek salad, with a half-cup of feta cheese, five anchovies and dressing, contains roughly 2,000 mg of sodium. Two slices of cheese pizza — 1,000 mg. A small bowl of Chinese hot and sour soup — 875 mg.

One pickle spear — one! — has 306 mg of sodium, 20 percent of the recommended daily intake. Ketchup — ketchup, for goodness’ sake! — has 154 mg, or 10 percent.

I love all of the above, but realize I can longer consume any of it, at least not in the quantities that I had.

I was shocked. The one factor that I hadn’t accounted for in my diet — sodium — put me in the hospital. I swore I wouldn’t let that happen again. Now I read content labels with sodium in mind. I eat more home-cooked meals so I can be sure of the salt content. I swore off coffee. And I drink a lot more water.

The good part: I sleep better, and my BP has returned to normal, with a little help from daily medication. Bottom line: Pay attention to fat and salt. And let’s not forget about sugar while we’re at it.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.