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Everything You Need to Know About High Blood Pressure


In the United States, one person dies of cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds. High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure, also referred to as hypertension, rarely has noticeable symptoms. That’s why it’s commonly known as the “silent killer.” If you suffer from this condition and it remains untreated, your risk of life-threatening events such as a heart attack or stroke may increase significantly.  

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 50% of all people in the U.S. suffer from high blood pressure. Only one-quarter of this population is managing their condition. If you’d like to learn more about risk factors and ways to prevent it so you can maintain healthy blood pressure, look no further! This guide will walk you through all the critical information you need.

What is Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the pressure of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. It depends on the strength of your heart, the amount of blood pumped, and the size and flexibility of your arteries. Maintaining healthy blood pressure is essential for the body to function properly because blood circulation is how oxygen and nutrients reach tissues and organs throughout your body.

Healthy blood pressure is also vital because blood carries white blood cells and antibodies that are essential for our immune system (the system responsible for protecting us against disease) and hormones such as insulin that regulate the functioning of many organs. Another indispensable function of the circulatory system is toxin transport, filtration, and elimination— including the carbon dioxide we breathe out and the compounds we excrete through the liver and kidneys.

How is Blood Pressure Measured?

The device used to measure blood pressure is called a baumanometer or sphygmomanometer. Most people just call it  a blood pressure monitor.  These machines work completely automatically by placing an inflatable cuff on the arm and waiting a few seconds to obtain a measurement. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg).

Because the heart pumps blood in pulses and not constantly, blood pressure measurement results consist of two numbers (such as 120/80). The first number is called systolic blood pressure, which is the highest pressure reached with each heartbeat. The second is diastolic pressure or the lowest pressure maintained between each pump.

Upper value (systolic pressure)

The heart pushes blood into the arteries as it contracts. Doctors call this contraction "systole," which is why the first value is called systolic blood pressure— it’s the pressure during one heartbeat and the highest pressure measured during the entire cycle. When this reading is 120 mmHg or slightly less while someone is at rest, the systolic blood pressure is considered normal.

The heart muscle expels blood at a higher pressure when a person is exercising, under stress, or at similar times when the heart rate increases. In these cases, an increase in pressure is normal. When the pressure is high while a person is at rest, this is considered high blood pressure. In order to diagnose high blood pressure, it’s very important to take blood pressure at rest.

High systolic blood pressure is usually caused by artery narrowing or blockage. This causes the heart to work harder to push blood through, putting it at risk of premature wear and tear.

Lower value (diastolic pressure)

The heart rests between beats in order to refill with blood. Doctors call this pause between beats "diastole." Your diastolic blood pressure is the pressure measured during this pause before the next heartbeat. Normal diastolic blood pressure while you’re at rest and calm is 80 mmHg or slightly less. If you have hypertension, your diastolic blood pressure is usually higher than this value even if you are at rest.

Causes of High Blood Pressure

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In most cases, high blood pressure has no identifiable cause. That said, some conditions and substances can cause this condition. Physicians distinguish between two types of hypertension based on this criteria.

Primary hypertension

Primary or essential hypertension is hypertension with no identifiable cause. This type of hypertension usually develops gradually over a person's lifetime. 

Secondary hypertension

Secondary hypertension occurs when high blood pressure is caused by a disease. It tends to have a sudden onset and it usually causes higher numbers. Some common causes are:

  • Diabetic nephropathy (a renal complication of diabetes)
  • Polycystic kidney disease (kidney cysts)
  • Glomerular disease (protein leakage from the blood passing through the kidneys)
  • Renovascular hypertension (narrowing of the arteries that carry blood to the kidneys)
  • Cushing's syndrome (excess cortisol production)
  • Aldosteronism (excess aldosterone production)
  • Pheochromocytomas (adrenal gland tumors)
  • Hyperparathyroidism (parathyroid hormone overproduction)
  • Aorta coarctation (a congenital defect resulting in an aorta that is narrower than normal)
  • Sleep apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep)
  • Some thyroid problems
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Some illegal drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines
  • Certain prescription and over-the-counter medications.
  • Certain dietary supplements

Risk Factors for Increased Blood Pressure

There are certain activities, personal characteristics, and substances that can significantly increase the risk of developing this condition. The following are the most common:

  • Age: In general, the older you are, the greater your risk for hypertension.
  • Ancestry: People with African ancestry are at higher risk for hypertension.
  • Heredity: This condition in some cases is hereditary.
  • Being overweight or obese: People who are overweight or obese require blood to circulate faster, causing their heart to overwork itself.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: A lack of physical activity wreaks havoc on the heart and can lead to elevated blood pressure.
  • Tobacco use: Using any tobacco products can affect your circulatory system, causing hypertension.
  • Consuming too much salt: The sodium in salt causes your body to retain fluids, which increases blood pressure.
  • Low potassium intake: Potassium counteracts the effects of sodium in the body, so a deficiency is another risk factor.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol can cause heart problems including high blood pressure.
  • Stress: High stress levels can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure.

Symptoms 

One of the most dangerous aspects of high blood pressure is that it usually doesn't cause symptoms unless it’s severe, so it often goes undetected. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly one-third of people who have hypertension don’t know it.

The best way to know if you have high blood pressure is to measure it regularly. Luckily, it’s pretty easy and inexpensive to monitor your blood pressure at home thanks to blood pressure monitors that are available at any drugstore. This is especially important if you have a close relative who has hypertension or if any of the risk factors mentioned above apply to you.

When to See a Doctor

If you don’t have a disease that can cause secondary hypertension, an annual visit to your doctor for a routine checkup is recommended. If you fall into any of the risk categories, your doctor will tell you how often to have your blood pressure checked.

It’s also important to keep in mind that when your blood pressure reaches high levels, you’ll probably have some symptoms to watch out for. These are known as hypertensive crises and occur when your blood pressure reaches or approaches 180/120. These crises warrant going to the emergency room. Symptoms that may be caused by a hypertensive crisis are:

  • Severe chest pain
  • Severe headache accompanied by confusion and blurry vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe anxiety
  • Shortness of breath
  • Convulsions
  • Loss of consciousness

Consequences of high blood pressure

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According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the most significant consequences of hypertension are:

  • Heart attack: By damaging the arteries, high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack.
  • Heart failure: Increased blood pressure increases the load on the heart, which can cause wear and tear that will not allow it to properly supply blood to the body.
  • Damage or even loss of vision: The blood vessels in the eyes are especially prone to damage from high blood pressure.
  • Stroke: Like those in the eyes, blood vessels in the brain can be affected, causing a stroke.
  • Sexual dysfunction: In men it can cause erectile dysfunction and a decreased libido in women.
  • Renal insufficiency: Hypertension can damage the arteries that feed the kidneys, affecting their ability to filter and purify blood.

How Do You Lower Blood Pressure?

If you have high blood pressure, the first thing you should do is see your doctor. They can help you design a health plan that might include changes in your routine, diet, and prescription medications. Regardless of your doctor's specific recommendations, Mayo Clinic recommends taking the following steps that may help:

  1. Watch your weight
  2. Exercise
  3. Eat healthy foods
  4. Reduce your salt intake
  5. Don't drink excessively
  6. Don’t use tobacco products
  7. Avoid caffeine
  8. Reduce stress
  9. Measure your blood pressure periodically
  10. Ask your family for support in maintaining good habits

Frequently Asked Questions 

What is normal blood pressure by age?

Although the average normal blood pressure is 120/80, this measurement varies according to age and sex. In this article you can find a table with the average normal values divided by gender and age group.

How much sodium should I consume per day?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recommends a daily sodium intake of 2,300 mg. 

Is hypertension hereditary?

If any of your relatives have high blood pressure, you’re probably at risk for developing this condition. This doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically suffer from it, but if you know this is the case, keep an eye out and make sure to see a doctor regularly. 

Better Safe Than Sorry!

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