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Dublin: 16 °C Saturday 21 September, 2019
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The 'silent killer' that affects one million people in Ireland

“It’s a ticking bomb, people are walking around with diabetes and [high] blood pressure and they’re not aware that they have it.”

IMG_9405 Marese Damery, the Irish Heart Foundation's Health Check Manager; mobile health unit driver Richard Bolton and Emma Carter, mobile health unit administrator Source: Órla Ryan, TheJournal.ie

HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE is estimated to affect almost one million people in Ireland.

It’s a major risk factor for cardiovascular (heart) disease and the biggest risk factor for stroke. Almost 64% of people over the age of 50 here have high blood pressure. About half of these people are not aware they suffer from the condition as it can have no symptoms.

Heart disease is the most common cause of death in Ireland, killing about 10,000 people every year.

Blood pressure shows the amount of work your heart has to do to pump blood around your body. The heart pumps blood through your arteries, by contracting and relaxing.

High blood pressure – or hypertension – means that blood pressure is constantly higher than the recommended level. The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have it measured. A healthy blood pressure should be between 120/80 and 140/90 mmHg (millimetres of mercury).

“It’s symptomless so we call it the silent killer. You could be very slim and feel very healthy but you could have massively high blood pressure,” Marese Damery, the Irish Heart Foundation’s Health Check Manager, explains.

“By virtue of looking well doesn’t mean that you don’t have high blood pressure so we always recommend the only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked,” Damery adds.

IMG_9404 The mobile health unit Source: Órla Ryan, TheJournal.ie

Over the past 12 months, Irish Heart’s Mobile Health Unit has checked the blood pressure of about 11,000 people in over 250 locations across 26 counties. During the free check-up, people receive advice about managing blood pressure, such as nutritional and exercise-related information, and are asked to follow up with a GP if necessary.

On a recent visit to the unit in Neilstown, Dublin, Damery told TheJournal.ie: ”The whole point of the mobile health unit is to reach people nationally, to provide free blood pressure checks, and to reach people in rural areas.

We like to reach both men and women – in community centres, family resource centres, Men’s Sheds groups, Traveller groups, every location that we can reach in Ireland.

“It’s a very private setting, we’ve two consultation rooms. We also have a waiting room in the back. The nurses have time to spend with somebody, doing their blood pressure.

“If somebody has questions about medication that they’re on for cholesterol or wants tips on how they can lose weight or stop smoking or reduce their alcohol intake, we have all that information and advice in the unit as well,” Damery says.

Irish Heart recommends that if you are over 30 with no family history of heart disease or a prior cardiac event, you should get your blood pressure checked at least once a year. If you’re over 30 and have prior heart issues yourself or in your family, it’s best to undertake more regular screening as advised by a doctor.

Men’s Sheds and Travelling community 

In general, men are more likely than women to have high blood pressure. In line with previous research in the area, a sample survey of 265 people who attended the mobile health unit showed that just over half of the men tested (51%, 62 of 121) had high blood pressure, compared with a third of the women tested (33%, 47 of 144).

Irish Heart has a partnership with the Irish Men’s Sheds Association, whose members generally fit the age group of those most at risk of having high blood pressure.

Emma Carter, the mobile health unit’s administrator, says this partnership is an important one, noting: “It’s going to them on their own turf, that’s their ground. It’s more comfortable for them and they have a group of their peers around them as well who are all doing the same thing. They’re encouraging of each other as well.”

Irish Heart has also teamed up with livestock marts around the country to provide free check-ups for farmers.

Another group Irish Heart has targeted through the mobile health unit is the Travelling community, whose members generally have a lower life expectancy than settled people. In Ireland, men live on average four-and-a-half years less than women (78.7 years and 83.2 years respectively), while Traveller men live 15.1 years less than men in the general population.

IMG_9418 Nurse Carol Pye testing a patient's blood pressure in the mobile health unit Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

On the day we visited the mobile health unit, some members of the Clondalkin Travellers Development Group (CTDG) were present.

Doreen Carpenter, CTDG’s project coordinator, told TheJournal.ie how important it is for Traveller men in particular to have regular check-ups.

Traveller men die 15 years younger than settled men so it’s very important to have these regular check-ups.

Carpenter said the fact the check-ups are free is also a big plus, as not everyone can afford to go to their GP regularly.

“If you haven’t got the means to be able to go [to the doctor] that’s a barrier in itself,” she notes.

“It’s very important to get men out because men don’t normally come out and get checked up, it’s not seen as a macho thing.

It’s a ticking bomb, people are walking around with diabetes and [high] blood pressure and they’re not aware that they have it, and because of the likes of the service that’s provided here today, that’ll stop that.

Alan Connolly, a member of the CTDG, has a family history of heart and blood pressure-related issues.

“My father died of a heart attack, my mother had a couple of strokes … a lot of my family does have high blood pressure, yeah, and I have as well.

It’s important to get your blood pressure taken, a lot of people walk around with high blood pressure and don’t know anything about it.

“I have haemochromatosis, which affects your liver and your heart, it’s just too much iron in your blood. It’s a subject that people don’t know a lot about … If you mention the word haemochromatosis people wouldn’t know what you mean by it.

“I didn’t know what it meant, the first time I heard the word was when the doctor advised me to get [the test] done … I would encourage all walks of life to get test done.”

FB_IMG_1501853213147 CTDG members at the mobile health unit Source: Doreen Carpenter, CTDG

Patrick McCarthy, another CTDG member, got the all-clear when his blood pressure was tested at the mobile health unit. He has regular check-ups as his father has diabetes.

He notes that some men are “embarrassed” to talk about health, but thinks they need to get over this.

They faint or get sick, then they go to the doctor – it’s too late in life then. [The check-up] is only less than 10 minutes, you get in and get out, you’re not going to be waiting an hour.

“[Health] is the most important thing. You only have one life, enjoy life while you have it.”

Connolly adds that people often “turn a blind eye” to feeling unwell, thinking a problem will go away. He advises against this though, encouraging everyone to have their blood pressure checked.

“Go and get it done, it only takes 10 minutes … You only have one life, look after it.”

His check-up at the unit went well but he’ll also go to see his GP in the next few weeks due to his condition.

“It’s put me off buying a breakfast roll now,” he jokes.

Irish Heart’s Mobile Health Unit is supported by Bank of Ireland and Medtronic. 

If you want to find out more information about where the unit will be next, click here or call the National Heart and Stroke Helpline on 1800 25 25 50 (free – Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm; Thursday until 7pm) to speak to a specialist nurse.

Read: ‘It’s not all politics and sport anymore’: Men’s Shed members open up about their health

Read: In 2014, a case similar to Charlie Gard’s came before the Irish High Court

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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