Mismanaged cloud services put user data at risk

Cloud services that aren’t properly managed can ‘leak’ data into the wrong hands. id-work/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

Eric Pauley, Penn State

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Organizations’ failure to properly manage the servers they lease from cloud service providers can allow attackers to receive private data, research my colleagues and I conducted has shown.

Cloud computing allows businesses to lease servers the same way they lease office space. It’s easier for companies to build and maintain mobile apps and websites when they don’t have to worry about owning and managing servers. But this way of hosting services raises security concerns.

Each cloud server has a unique IP address that allows users to connect and send data. After an organization no longer needs this address, it is given to another customer of the service provider, perhaps one with malicious intent. IP addresses change hands as often as every 30 minutes as organizations change the services they use.

When organizations stop using a cloud server but fail to remove references to the IP address from their systems, users can continue to send data to this address, thinking they are talking to the original service. Because they trust the service that previously used the address, user devices automatically send sensitive information such as GPS location, financial data and browsing history.

An attacker can take advantage of this by “squatting” on the cloud: claiming IP addresses to try to receive traffic intended for other organizations. The rapid turnover of IP addresses leaves little time to identify and correct the issue before attackers start receiving data. Once the attacker controls the address, they can continue to receive data until the organization discovers and corrects the issue. https://www.youtube.com/embed/nHJZHWVgxU8?wmode=transparent&start=0 Poorly managed cloud services are another opportunity for attackers to steal data. Video by Penn State.

Our study of a small fraction of cloud IP addresses found thousands of businesses that were potentially leaking user data, including data from mobile apps and advertising trackers. These apps initially intended to share personal data with businesses and advertisers, but instead leaked data to whoever controlled the IP address. Anyone with a cloud account could collect the same data from vulnerable organizations.

Why it matters

Smartphone users share personal data with businesses through the apps they install. In a recent survey, researchers found that half of smartphone users were comfortable sharing their locations through smartphone apps. But the personal information users share through these apps could be used to steal their identity or hurt their reputation.

Personal data has seen increasing regulation in recent years, and users may be content to trust the businesses they interact with to follow those regulations and respect their privacy. But these regulations may not sufficiently protect users. Our research shows that even when companies intend to use data responsibly, poor security practices can leave that data up for grabs.

Users should know that when they share their private or personal data with companies, they are also exposed to the security practices of those companies. They can take steps to reduce this exposure by reducing how much data they share and with how many organizations they share it.

What other research is being done in this field

Academics and industry are focusing on responsible collection of user data. A recent push by Google aims to reduce collection of users’ personal data by mobile advertisements, ensuring that their security and privacy is protected.

At the same time, researchers are working to better explain what applications do with the data they collect. This work aims to ensure that the data users share with applications is used how they expect by matching permission prompts with how the apps actually behave.

What’s next

We’re conducting research into new technologies on smartphones and devices to ensure they protect user data. For instance, research led by a colleague of mine describes an approach to protect personal data collected by smart cameras. Our vantage point on traffic in the public cloud is also enabling new studies of the internet as a whole. We are continuing to work with cloud providers to ensure that user data stored on the cloud is secure, and are introducing techniques to prevent businesses and their customers from being victimized on the cloud.

Eric Pauley, PhD student in Computer Science and Engineering, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shape-shifting computer chip thwarts an army of hackers

The Morpheus secure processor works like a puzzle that keeps changing before hackers have a chance to solve it. Alan de la Cruz via Unsplash

Todd Austin, University of Michigan and Lauren Biernacki, University of Michigan

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

We have developed and tested a secure new computer processor that thwarts hackers by randomly changing its underlying structure, thus making it virtually impossible to hack.

Last summer, 525 security researchers spent three months trying to hack our Morpheus processor as well as others. All attempts against Morpheus failed. This study was part of a program sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Program Agency to design a secure processor that could protect vulnerable software. DARPA released the results on the program to the public for the first time in January 2021.

A processor is the piece of computer hardware that runs software programs. Since a processor underlies all software systems, a secure processor has the potential to protect any software running on it from attack. Our team at the University of Michigan first developed Morpheus, a secure processor that thwarts attacks by turning the computer into a puzzle, in 2019.

A processor has an architecture – x86 for most laptops and ARM for most phones – which is the set of instructions software needs to run on the processor. Processors also have a microarchitecture, or the “guts” that enable the execution of the instruction set, the speed of this execution and how much power it consumes.

Hackers need to be intimately familiar with the details of the microarchitecture to graft their malicious code, or malware, onto vulnerable systems. To stop attacks, Morpheus randomizes these implementation details to turn the system into a puzzle that hackers must solve before conducting security exploits. From one Morpheus machine to another, details like the commands the processor executes or the format of program data change in random ways. Because this happens at the microarchitecture level, software running on the processor is unaffected.

a fan on top of a metal square in the middle of a computer circuit board
The Morpheus computer processor, inside the square beneath the fan on this circuit board, rapidly and continuously changes its underlying structure to thwart hackers. Todd Austin, CC BY-ND

A skilled hacker could reverse-engineer a Morpheus machine in as little as a few hours, if given the chance. To counter this, Morpheus also changes the microarchitecture every few hundred milliseconds. Thus, not only do attackers have to reverse-engineer the microachitecture, but they have to do it very fast. With Morpheus, a hacker is confronted with a computer that has never been seen before and will never be seen again.

Why it matters

To conduct a security exploit, hackers use vulnerabilities in software to get inside a device. Once inside, they graft their malware onto the device. Malware is designed to infect the host device to steal sensitive data or spy on users.

The typical approach to computer security is to fix individual software vulnerabilities to keep hackers out. For these patch-based techniques to succeed, programmers must write perfect software without any bugs. But ask any programmer, and the idea of creating a perfect program is laughable. Bugs are everywhere, and security bugs are the most difficult to find because they don’t impair a program’s normal operation.

Morpheus takes a distinct approach to security by augmenting the underlying processor to prevent attackers from grafting malware onto the device. With this approach, Morpheus protects any vulnerable software that runs on it.

What other research is being done

For the longest time, processor designers considered security a problem for software programmers, since programmers made the software bugs that lead to security concerns. But recently computer designers have discovered that hardware can help protect software.

Academic efforts, such as Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions at the University of Cambridge, have demonstrated strong protection against memory bugs. Commercial efforts have begun as well, such as Intel’s soon-to-be-released Control-flow Enforcement Technology.

Morpheus takes a notably different approach of ignoring the bugs and instead randomizes its internal implementation to thwart exploitation of bugs. Fortunately, these are complementary techniques, and combining them will likely make systems even more difficult to attack.

What’s next

We are looking at how the fundamental design aspects of Morpheus can be applied to protect sensitive data on people’s devices and in the cloud. In addition to randomizing the implementation details of a system, how can we randomize data in a way that maintains privacy while not being a burden to software programmers?

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Todd Austin, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan and Lauren Biernacki, Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science & Engineering, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How do keys open locks?

The depths of the valleys on a key act like a code that must match the lock. Robin Smith/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Scott Craver, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.

How are keys made, and how do they open locks? – Noli, age 12, Wisconsin

Have you ever wondered how keys work? I teach a course in computer security where we learn how locks function – and also how they can be broken or bypassed. We do this because locks teach important principles about security in general.

A ruler is next to a key. Red arrows show how the key's intendations are evenly spaced.
The spacing of the valleys is key. Scott Craver, CC BY-ND

If you look closely at a key, you’ll see its top edge has a bunch of V-shaped valleys. If you inspect the key more closely, perhaps with a ruler, you’ll notice the bottoms of these valleys are equally spaced. The depth of the valleys encodes a sequence that is accepted by the lock, with each valley contributing one value to the combination.

Inside the lock is a cylinder – the part that moves when you stick your key in and turn it. The key can turn only if all its valleys are the right depth for your particular lock.

But how does your lock detect whether your key’s valleys have the right sequence of depths?

A lock with its inner-workings exposed. Labeled are the shafts, pins and cylinder.
A peek at the parts inside a lock. Scott Craver, CC BY-ND

Inside the lock are vertical shafts, one over each valley of the key. In each shaft is a pair of metal pins that can freely slide up and down. Depending on where the pins are, they can block the cylinder from turning and prevent the lock from opening. This happens whenever a pin is partially sticking into or out of the cylinder.

Side by side photos showing the inside of a lock. The left image shows pins that are too high and too low. The right image shows the pins aligned.
For a lock to open, all the pins must be aligned. Scott Carver, CC BY-ND

When you stick a key in the lock, the pins fall into the valleys. If a valley is too high, it causes a pin to stick out and jam the cylinder. If a valley is too low, the pin sinks too low and the pin above it will sink into the cylinder and jam it. However, if the right key is inserted with the valleys at just the right depths, none of the pins get in the way.

Keys are made by placing a blank key into a grinding machine that is programmed to carve out the exact valleys that are needed. A locksmith can also change a lock by removing its pins and fitting it with new ones to match a chosen key.

In computer security, we say that security relies on “something you know, something you have or something you are.” A password is an example of something you know. A key is an example of something you have. A fingerprint would be an example of something you are. But as you can see, a key is also very much like a password, except it is encoded by grinding a piece of metal.

For this reason, you shouldn’t ever post a picture of your house key on the internet. That would be like posting a picture of a credit card or a password – someone could use the photo to duplicate the key.

It is also possible to unlock or “pick” locks without a key. By sliding a thin piece of metal into the cylinder and gently pushing the pins to the correct height one by one, locks can be opened. However, it takes a great deal of skill and practice to do this.

What does this teach us about security? First, we must make keys secret by making a very large number of possible keys, so that the right one is hard to guess or build. It’s the same for passwords. Second, it’s important to engineer a lock or computer program that requires every bit of the key or password to be exactly correct.

It’s important to study the inner workings of locks and computer programs to understand how their design might allow someone to break them.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.

Scott Craver, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Don’t hate your gut: It may help you lose weight, fight depression and lower blood pressure

Trillions of microorganisms live inside your gut. Anatomy Insider/Shutterstock.com

Jasenka Zubcevic, University of Florida and Christopher Martyniuk, University of Florida

A universe of organisms living inside you may affect every part of your body, from your brain to your bones, and even your thoughts, feelings and your attempts to lose weight.

This is a universe of trillions of microorganisms – or what we biologists call microbiota – that live in your gut, the part of your body responsible for digestion of the food you eat and the liquids you drink.

As researchers, we have been looking increasingly into the effect these bacteria have on their host’s body, from obesity to mental illness and heart disease. With obesity, for example, these tiny organisms may play a big role by influencing what foods we crave and how our bodies hold onto fat.

In a recent study of the gut microbiome, we set out to determine whether the microbiota in the gut can be affected not only by our nervous system but also by an unsuspected source – our bone marrow.

Our hope is that, by understanding the interactions of the microbiome with other parts of the body, one day treatments could be developed for a range of illnesses.

The gut-brain-bone marrow connection

The gut, which includes your esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, colon and other parts of your digestive system, is the first line of defense and the largest interface between the host – in this case, a person – and the outside world.

After birth, the gut is the first point of entry for environmental and dietary influences on human life. Thus, the microbiota in the gut play a crucial role during human growth, as they contribute to development and maintenance of our immune system throughout our lifetime.

While we initially thought of the microbiota as relatively simple organisms, the fact is that they may not be so simple after all. Gut microbiota can be as personal and complex as a fingerprint.

There are more bacteria in your gut alone than cells in your entire body. This vast bacterial universe contains species that combined can have up to 150 times more genes than exist in humans. Research suggests that the bacteria in our gut predates the appearance of humans and that they may have played an important role in evolutionary separation between our ape ancestors and us.

Healthy bacteria actively interact with the host immune system in the gut. They contribute to the barrier between disease-causing microorganisms or infections introduced via ingestion. They also help prepare the host immune system to defend the body. The wrong mix of microbes, on the other hand, can contribute to many digestive, immune and mental health disorders and even obesity.

These tiny organisms work very hard in digestion. They help digest our food and can release nutrients and vitamins essential for our well being, all in exchange for the privilege of existing in a nutritious environment.

Researchers are actively exploring the many facets of this symbiotic relationship. Recent data show a link between gut microbiota diversity and richness and the way we store fat, how we regulate digestion hormones and blood glucose levels, and even what types of food we prefer.

The gut micro biome can influence our cravings for food, including chocolate. beats1/Shutterstock.com

This may also be a reason our eating habits are so difficult to change. Some research suggests that microbiota may generate cravings for foods they specialize in – even chocolate – or those that will allow them to better compete for resources against other bacteria.

A three-way call?

There’s growing evidence of a link between the brain and our microbiota as well. The brain is the equivalent of a computer’s main processor, regulating all physiological variables, including the immune system, the body’s defense against infection and illness.

All immune cells are “born” in the bone marrow. From our previous research, we knew that increased bone marrow inflammation, one of many consequences of high blood pressure, was driven by a direct message from the brain. The gut, too, plays an important role in preparing the immune system for battle.

From deep within our bones, our bone marrow may be communicating with other parts of our bodies. sciencepics/Shutterstock.com

So we wondered: Could the bone marrow immune cells be playing a role in signaling between the brain and the gut? We wanted to find out.

Using a novel experimental mouse model, we replaced the bone marrow that occurs naturally within a mouse with bone marrow cells from a different, genetically modified mouse. This replacement marrow was deficient in a specific molecule called adrenergic receptor beta, which made the bone marrow less responsive to the neural messages from the brain.

In this way we could investigate how the host brain-immune communication will modify gut microbiota.

Indeed, by studying this new mouse model, we determined that our nervous system – directed by our brain – can modify the composition of gut microbiota by communicating directly with the bone marrow immune cells. The brain, therefore, can change our gut microbiota indirectly by talking to the bone.

Fewer inflammatory cells in bone marrow resulted in fewer in the gut

Based on our experiments, we observed that fewer inflammatory cells were present in the circulation of mice that received the special bone marrow replacement than in those that didn’t. This means there are fewer immune cells able to infiltrate the gut and influence the bacterial environment.

Thus, by suppressing the communication between the brain and the bone marrow, we observed a muted inflammatory response in the gut and a consequent shift toward a “healthier,” more diverse microbiome.

This appears to be mediated via specific changes in inflammatory genes in the gut. However, this interaction between the host and the gut microbiota is very complex, and much more research is needed to pinpoint the exact mechanisms of their close communication.

This may also be protective against weight gain, due to the very important role that both microbiota and the immune system play in obesity.

A key to heart health, mental health and weight loss?

This finding may also have implications in immune diseases as well as treatments either resulting in or employing immunosuppression. The latter may affect the gut microbiota, which in turn may cause unwanted effects in the body, including those associated with digestive and mental health conditions.

In the context of cardiovascular disease, this muted inflammatory response appears to be beneficial, as it leads to beneficial lowering of blood pressure in our experimental mice.

Most interestingly, a link between gut microbiota and our mental health has recently become clearer. In particular, some have suggested that gut microbiota influence the stress and anxiety pathways in the brain in a way that can alter mood and behavior both positively and negatively, giving a whole new meaning to the term “gut feeling.”

This could soon lead to a new class of drugs, called psychobiotics.

Much like the “chicken and the egg” scenario, however, this complex interplay warrants further investigation to fully understand the consequences (or benefits) of perturbing one single component of the gut microbiota. This understanding is essential if we are to fully harness the power of manipulation of gut microbiota in health and disease, without negative side effects.

Jasenka Zubcevic, Assistant Professor, University of Florida and Christopher Martyniuk, Associate Professor of Toxicology, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Want to do something good for your health? Try being generous

Ashley Whillans, University of British Columbia

Every day, we are confronted with choices about how to spend our money. Whether it’s thinking about picking up the tab at a group lunch or when a charity calls asking for a donation, we are faced with the decision to behave generously or not.

Research suggests that spending money on others can improve happiness, but can it also improve your physical health?

There is some evidence that donating time can improve physical health, but no one has looked at whether donating money has the same effect.

So my colleagues and I at the University of British Columbia decided to conduct an experiment to find out if spending money on others could lower blood pressure, which was published in the journal Health Psychology.

Helping out. ccbarr/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Helpful people might be healthier

A 1999 study examining whether volunteering had an effect on mortality provided initial evidence for an association between helping others and physical health. In the study, adults age 55 and older reported how many organizations they helped, how many hours they spent volunteering, and then underwent a physical exam.

Researchers controlled for several factors, including how healthy participants were when the study began and their available social support. After five years the adults who reported providing more help to others were 44% more likely to be alive.

In a more recent study, researchers measured blood pressure and volunteering once at baseline and again four years later. They found evidence that older adults who volunteered at least four hours per week in the 12 months prior to the baseline blood pressure measurement were less likely to develop high blood pressure four years later.

Additional studies suggest that volunteering is associated with greater physical health in part because volunteering helps to buffer against stress and prevents against declines in functional health, such as declines in walking speed and physical strength.

So does being helpful cause better health?

It might seem simple – helping is good for your health. But so far, most research studying the health benefits of helping have been correlational. These studies cannot determine whether helping others actually causes improvements in physical health or just happens to be related to it.

Also, most research has focused on the health benefits of volunteering one’s time. As it turns out, people think about time and money in vastly different ways. For example, whereas thinking about time leads people to prioritize social connections, thinking about money can lead people to distance themselves from others.

It remains unclear whether the benefits of generosity extend to donating money. Our latest work provides the first empirical evidence that this decision might also have clinically relevant implications for physical health.

Give a little. Hand and coin via www.shutterstock.com.

Can spending money on others lower blood pressure?

We gave 128 older adults (ages 65-85) US$40 a week for three weeks. Half of our participants were randomly assigned to spend the money on themselves and half were told to spend it on others. We told participants to spend their $40 payment all in one day and to save the receipts from the purchases they had made.

We measured participants’ blood pressure before, during, and after they spent their study payments. We chose to examine blood pressure in this study because we can measure it reliably in the lab, and because high blood pressure is a significant health outcome – having chronically elevated blood pressure (hypertension) is responsible for 7.5 million premature deaths each year.

What did we find? Among participants who were previously diagnosed with high blood pressure (N=73), spending money on others significantly reduced their blood pressure over the course of the study. Critically, the magnitude of these effects was comparable to the benefits of interventions such as anti-hypertensive medication and exercise.

The participants who were previously diagnosed with high blood pressure, and who were assigned to spend money on themselves, showed no change in blood pressure during the study. As expected, for people who didn’t have high blood pressure, there was no benefit from spending money on others.

Whom you spend money on matters

Interestingly, we found tentative evidence that how people spent their money mattered for promoting the benefits of financial generosity. People seemed to benefit most from spending money on others they felt closest to. This finding is consistent with previous research from our lab showing that people derive the most satisfaction from spending money on others when they splurge on close friends and family.

For instance, the first participant in our study was a war veteran. He donated his payments to a school built in honor of a friend he had served with in the Vietnam War. Another participant donated her payments to a charity that had helped her granddaughter survive anorexia.

Of course, there is still a lot to learn about when and for whom the health benefits of financial generosity emerge.

For example, we don’t know a lot about how or how much people should spend on others to enjoy long-lasting health benefits. Indeed, research suggests that the positive benefits of new circumstances can disappear quickly. Thus, to sustain the health benefits of financial generosity, it might be necessary to engage in novel acts of financial generosity, while prioritizing people that you are closest to.

And financial generosity might not always benefit health. Drawing from research on caregiving, financial generosity might provide benefits only when it does not incur overwhelming personal costs. After reading this article, you probably should think twice before donating your entire life savings to charity, because the stress of helping so extensively could undermine any potential benefits.

Although more research is needed to replicate these results, our initial findings provide some of the strongest evidence to date that daily decisions related to engaging in financial generosity can have causal benefits for physical health.

Stepping toward better health (and happiness) may be as simple as spending your next $20 generously.

Ashley Whillans, PhD student in Social & Health Psychology, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The latest blood pressure guidelines: What they mean for you

An accurate reading is essential to detect high blood pressure. This photo shows optimal procedures, including the supported arm, no clothing on the arm and uncrossed legs. The American Heart Association., CC BY-SA

John Warner, UT Southwestern Medical Center

Updated blood pressure guidelines from the American Heart Association mean that many more Americans, notably older people, are now diagnosed with high blood pressure, or hypertension. This may sound like bad news, but the new guidelines highlight some important lessons we cardiologists and heart health researchers have learned from the latest blood pressure studies. Specifically, we have learned that damage from high blood pressure starts at much lower blood pressures than previously thought and that it is more important than ever to start paying attention to your blood pressure before it starts causing problems.

High blood pressure accounts for more heart disease and stroke deaths than all other preventable causes, except smoking.

As president of the AHA and a cardiologist, I completely support the latest guidelines. I know they will save lives, especially when blood pressure is accurately checked and when people make therapeutic lifestyle choices to lower their blood pressure.

How high blood pressure damages

High blood pressure, which occurs when the force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls is too high, is similar to turning up the water in a garden hose – pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it. The added pressure causes the heart to work too hard and blood vessels to function less effectively. Over time, the stress damages the tissues within blood vessels, which can further damage the heart and circulatory system.

The AHA, the American College of Cardiology and nine other health professional organizations reviewed more than 900 studies as part of a rigorous review and approval process to develop this first update since 2003 to comprehensive U.S. high blood pressure guidelines.

Here’s what’s new:

  1. High blood pressure, previously defined as 140/90 mm Hg or higher, is now defined as 130/80 mm Hg or higher. This change reflects the latest research that shows health problems can occur at those lower levels. Risk for heart attack, stroke and other consequences begins anywhere above 120 mm Hg (for systolic blood pressure, the top number in a reading), and risk doubles at 130 mm Hg compared to levels below 120.
  2. Blood pressure in adults will be categorized as normal, elevated, stage 1 hypertension or stage 2 hypertension. The category “prehypertension” is no longer used; it previously referred to blood pressures with a top number (systolic) between 120-139 mm Hg or a bottom number (diastolic) between 80-89 mm Hg. People with those readings are now categorized as having either Elevated or Stage I hypertension.
  3. Determination of eligibility for blood pressure-lowering medication treatment is no longer based solely on blood pressure level. It now also considers a patient’s risk of heart disease or stroke over the next 10 years, based on a risk calculator. For people with blood pressure higher than 140/90 mm Hg, medication is recommended regardless of risk level.
New blood pressure guidelines from the American Heart Association. CC BY-SA

Putting the guidelines to work

Hypertension is known as the “silent killer” because often there are no obvious symptoms. The only way to know whether you have it is by having your blood pressure measured. Accurate blood pressure measurement is critical to a correct diagnosis.

The guidelines emphasize use of proper technique to measure blood pressure, whether taken by a health care professional in the clinic or by the patient using a home blood pressure monitoring device. Blood pressure levels should be based on an average of two to three readings on at least two different occasions.

A number of common errors can inflate a reading. These include having a full bladder, slouching with unsupported back or feet, sitting with crossed legs, or talking while being measured; using a cuff that is too small or wrapping the cuff over clothing; and not supporting the arm being measured on a chair or counter to keep it level with the heart.

An accurate reading is critical to a correct diagnosis, faster treatment and the most appropriate care.

The lower threshold for a diagnosis of high blood pressure increases the percentage of U.S. adults (ages 20 and older) who have the condition, from approximately 1 in 3 to nearly half (46 percent).

Even with the new threshold, the percentage of U.S. adults for whom medication is recommended (along with lifestyle management) will increase only slightly. Most of the people who are newly diagnosed with high blood pressure will be advised to make lifestyle changes to shift their blood pressure into a healthy zone.

The promise of healthy lifestyle changes

Exercise is an important part of keeping blood pressure low. Pikselstock/Shutterstock.com

Damage to blood vessels begins soon after blood pressure is elevated. Early intervention can help prevent problems, slow damage that has already started and lower the risk for a heart disease or stroke. Lifestyle changes should be on the front lines of efforts to tackle the high blood pressure epidemic.

Here are some of the best proven nondrug approaches to prevent and treat high blood pressure:

  • Lose weight. For each kilogram lost, systolic blood pressure is expected to fall by about 1 mm Hg.
  • Eat better. Choose a dietary pattern rich in fruits vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, reduced in saturated and total fat, lower in salt (aim to cut current intake by 1,000 mg/day sodium), and rich in potassium (aim for 3,500-5,000 mg/day, focusing on potassium-rich foods such as bananas, potatoes, avocados and dark leafy vegetables).
  • Move more. Get 90-150 minutes per week of both aerobic physical activity and resistance training.
  • Moderate alcohol intake. Limit to one drink or fewer per day for women and two drinks or fewer per day for men.

Personal responsibility for one’s health behaviors is important, but a number of other complex, interrelated aspects of the physical, social and policy environments influence these behaviors.

Public health practices and policies leading to changes in systems and environments support individuals’ efforts to make healthy lifestyle choices. For example, well-maintained sidewalks, bike lanes and parks support physically active lifestyles, and healthier food options in corner stores, vending machines and other public places promotes better eating habits. Community-based efforts can shift social norms and help transform the environments where behaviors occur to make healthier choices easier – more accessible, affordable, and attractive – for everyone.

John Warner, Executive Vice President, Health Affairs, UT Southwestern Medical Center

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.