FRIDAY, Oct. 28, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- It's been three years since four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Montana learned he had dangerously high blood pressure.
And now, the coach helping him to win the battle against this potentially fatal disease is his wife, Jennifer.
Montana, considered one of the greatest pro football quarterbacks ever, was 46, looked and felt fine, and hadn't been to a doctor since his playing days had ended after the 1994 season. But at Jennifer's insistence, he agreed to go for a physical -- something they both expected would be a simple matter of establishing a baseline of his good health.
"I did not expect a phone call from Joe saying, 'I have high blood pressure and am on my way to the cardiologist right now.' It was a bit frightening," said Jennifer Montana, who spoke with her husband in New York City this week at a news conference to highlight the importance of family support in managing high blood pressure.
Montana turned out to be one of the more than 65 million Americans who suffer from high blood pressure, an insidious and symptomless disease that dramatically increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
"I had no symptoms at all. That is the scary part of this disease. It can sneak up on you," he said.
Although Montana had some family history of high blood pressure -- his mother and sisters had it -- he never thought he might have it because he wasn't overweight, diabetic or living a particularly sedentary lifestyle, conditions many people associate with an increased risk for high blood pressure.
This misconception is common, said Dr. James Rippe, an associate professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, who also spoke at the conference. While some lifestyle habits do raise the risk for hypertension, the cause of the disease is unknown, he said, which means everyone should be paying attention to their blood pressure.
"Those who think that since they're not overweight or suffering from stress, they couldn't possibly have high blood pressure are deluding themselves," Rippe said.
Now 49, Montana's blood pressure is under control, thanks to strict adherence to medication, and adopting a healthier lifestyle that he's the first to admit has been engineered by his wife.
Jennifer began to improve Joe's eating habits by encouraging him to cut down on his food portions, and reintroducing him to a regular exercise routine, something he'd stopped after his football career had ended. She also encouraged him to work with his doctor until he got a blood-pressure medication that worked for him. Like many people with high blood pressure, Montana needs two medicines to control his disease.
"Now, I can still enjoy things I like, but in moderation," he said. Instead of a huge rib-eye steak, he'll eat a smaller filet. And when he buys a bag of potato chips, he'll only eat half the package, crushing the rest into little bits to resist the temptation to eat them all.
The Montanas' four children now participate in a more active lifestyle, too. Joe and Jennifer limit television time, and they all play sports together.
"We are teaching our kids that this is a healthy way to live. We've made it sort of a routine," Jennifer said.
Making permanent lifestyle changes and trying different medications until you find one, or a combination, that works for you is very important in keeping blood pressure low and reducing the risk for heart disease and stroke, Rippe said.
"Compliance is the biggest issue we need to confront. Since there are no symptoms, people tend to underestimate the risks," he said.
And those risks can be considerable. Of the approximately 65 million people with high blood pressure, which is considered a reading of 140/90 mm Hg or above, nearly 70 percent do not have it under control, despite the fact, that with proper diagnosis, it can be successfully treated, Rippe said.
What's more, high blood pressure does not strike equally, according to Dr. Donna Mendes, senior vascular surgeon at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, and another speaker at the conference. She said the disease affects 40 percent of blacks, and tends to strike them earlier and more severely than it does whites.
A blood pressure reading of 119/80 mm Hg or lower is considered a safe reading. The top number, called systolic pressure, represents the pressure of blood flow as the heart beats and pushes blood through the body; the lower number, called diastolic pressure, is the pressure between heartbeats when the heart rests and refills with blood.
Rippe said everyone should know their blood pressure.
"If your doctor says, 'It's OK,' you ask, 'What is it?'" If it's above normal, talk to him about how to bring it down, he added.
The conference was sponsored by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., as part of the BP Success Zone, an educational program to increase public awareness of the importance of diagnosing and treating high blood pressure.
The American Heart Association outlines some of the risks for high blood pressure.