Like most of us in our twenties, I thought I was invincible. I was a social smoker, a night out meant at least four drinks, exercise was not on my radar and my favourite meal was a rich pasta with smoked salmon and cream sauce. Life was fun and busy, and to be honest, I didn't really give my health a second thought.
I was a nurse at the time so in theory, I should have known better. I also have an extensive family history of heart disease, stroke and congenital heart defects, but it was the 1980s and my health habits – or lack thereof – were fairly normal for someone my age.
I am now the Chief Executive Officer of the Stroke Foundation, a key health charity in Australia, so it is not easy to confess I have not always lived by the healthy lifestyle messages I spruik. But my reason for delving in to my past is because Friday, May 17 is World Hypertension Day. It serves as an important reminder for everyone to contemplate their own lifestyle and make a health check a priority.
Hypertension is also known as high blood pressure and it is the key risk factor for stroke. More than 4 million Australians are living with high blood pressure, and frighteningly, a large number of them don't even know they have it. Hypertension has no symptoms, but over time, it damages blood vessels, putting people at serious and unnecessary risk of stroke and heart disease.
This brings me to my first health scare. When I was 31, I collapsed. Tests that followed revealed I had a heart murmur and a very slow heart rate. This fright changed my path and made me take my health seriously. I was not able to drive for 12 months, so had to get creative about the way I travelled, opting for public transport and walking. One thing led to another. I quit smoking, took up regular exercise, switched from diet drinks to water and incorporated wholegrains and lots of vegetables in my diet. I enjoyed my new stamina and clear mind and even took on further study as a result.
Flash forward to 2016, and I had just started my dream role of leading the Stroke Foundation. I was fit and healthy – or so I thought.
I was preparing to launch the Australia's Biggest Blood Pressure Check campaign, which included rolling up my sleeve and having a blood pressure check on television. Before we went live, I checked my blood pressure myself. I had not done so for a long time and was shocked to learn it was 160/90, anything over 140/90 is considered high. I put it down to pre-interview nerves at first, but quickly followed it up with a trip to my doctor.
Talk about a wake-up call! I was diagnosed with the very condition I was raising awareness of publicly. I myself had high blood pressure and was at serious risk of stroke with no idea!
Although I looked fit on the outside, my story demonstrates that none of us is immune to the risk. In my case, my genetics pre-disposed me to high blood pressure. I dread to think how much worse my blood pressure reading would have been if I had not adopted regular exercise, a better diet and quit smoking all those years ago.
There is nothing you can do to change your family history, but knowing your numbers and making positive lifestyle changes to keep blood pressure within a normal range will give you the best chance of living a long and healthy life. It is never too early or too late to make changes, even if that means starting with small steps like putting the salt shaker away and taking the stairs rather than the lift.
I am incredibly grateful for the day I learnt I had high blood pressure because it meant I could act to improve it. I am now on medication, I check it regularly and it is within normal limits. I have since run a half marathon to raise awareness of stroke and I feel great.
So, this World Hypertension Day, I encourage you to have your blood pressure checked with your doctor, a pharmacist or on a digital health check machine. No matter how old you are or seemingly fit you may be, it only takes a few minutes and it could save your life.
By Stroke Foundation Chief Executive Officer Sharon McGowan for World Hypertension Day