WHAT WE TREAT
High blood pressure, also known as HBP or hypertension, is a widely misunderstood medical condition. Some people think that those with hypertension are tense, nervous or hyperactive, but hypertension has nothing to do with personality traits. The truth is, you can be a calm, relaxed person and still have HBP.
Let’s look at the facts about blood pressure so you can better understand how your body works and why it is smart to start protecting yourself now, no matter what your blood pressure numbers are.
By keeping your blood pressure in the healthy range, you are:
- Reducing your risk of the walls of your blood vessels becoming overstretched and injured.
- Reducing your risk of having a heart attack or stroke; and of developing heart failure, kidney failure and peripheral vascular disease.
- Protecting your entire body so that your tissue receives regular supplies of blood that is rich in the oxygen it needs.
What happens in the body when blood pressure is high?
Blood pressure measures the force pushing outwards on your arterial walls.
The organs in your body need oxygen to survive. Oxygen is carried through the body by the blood. When the heart beats, it creates pressure that pushes blood through a network of tube-shaped arteries and veins, also known as blood vessels and capillaries. The pressure — blood pressure — is the result of two forces. The first force occurs as blood pumps out of the heart and into the arteries that are part of the circulatory system. The second force is created as the heart rests between heart beats.
The problems from too much force:
Healthy arteries are made of muscle and a semi-flexible tissue that stretches like elastic when the heart pumps blood through them. The more forcefully that blood pumps, the more the arteries stretch to allow blood to easily flow. Over time, if the force of the blood flow is often high, the tissue that makes up the walls of arteries gets stretched beyond its healthy limit and damaged. This creates problems in several ways:
- First, the overstretching creates weak places in the blood vessels, making them more prone to rupture. Problems such as hemorrhagic strokes and aneurysms are caused by ruptures in the blood vessels.
- Second, the overstretching can cause tiny tears in the blood vessels that leave scar tissue on the walls of arteries and veins. These tears and the scar tissue are like nets, and can catch debris such as cholesterol or blood cells traveling in the bloodstream.
Increased risk of blood clots:
- Trapped blood can form clots that can narrow (and sometimes block) the arteries. These clots sometimes break off and block vessels and the blood supply to different parts of the body. When this happens, heart attacks or strokes are often the result.
Increased plaque build-up:
- The same principle applies to our blood flow. Cholesterol and plaque build-up at the damaged sites in the arteries and cause the blood flow to become limited or even cut off altogether. As this happens, pressure is increased on the rest of the system, forcing the heart to work harder to deliver blood to your body. Additionally, if pieces of plaque break off and travel to other parts of the body, or if the build-up completely blocks the vessel, then heart attacks and strokes occur.
Tissue and organ damage from narrowed and blocked arteries:
- Ultimately, the arteries on the other side of the blockage do not receive enough freshly oxygenated blood, which results in tissue damage.
Increased workload on the circulatory system:
- Think of it this way: In a home where several faucets are open and running, the water pressure flowing out of any one faucet is lower. But when pipes get clogged and therefore narrow, the pressure is much greater behind the clog. And if all the household water is flowing through only one faucet, the pressure is higher still.
- When the arteries are not as elastic because of the build-up of cholesterol or plaque or because of scarring, the heart pumps harder to get blood into the arteries. Over time, this increased work can result in damage to the heart itself. The muscles and valves in the heart can become damaged and heart failure can result.
- Damage to the vessels that supply blood to your kidneys and brain may negatively affect these organs.
- You may not feel that anything is wrong, but high blood pressure can permanently damage your heart, brain, eyes and kidneys before you feel anything. High blood pressure can often lead to heart attack and heart failure, stroke,kidney failure, and other health consequences.
Why Blood Pressure Matters
Yes, uncontrolled high blood pressure (HBP) can injure or kill you. It’s sometimes called “the silent killer” because HBP has no symptoms, so you may not be aware that it’s damaging your arteries, heart and other organs.
Possible health consequences that can happen over time when high blood pressure is left untreated include:
- Damage to the heart and coronary arteries, including heart attack, heart disease, congestive heart failure, aortic dissection and atherosclerosis (fatty buildups in the arteries that cause them to harden)
- Kidney damage
- Vision loss
- Erectile dysfunction
- Memory loss
- Fluid in the lungs
- Peripheral artery disease
But remember, these are not symptoms of HBP. High blood pressure is a symptomless disease except in its most extreme cases known as hypertensive crisis. When BP readings rise to 180 or above for the systolic — top — number OR 110 or above for the diastolic — bottom — number, call 9-1-1 for emergency medical treatment immediately.
Individuals whose blood pressure is higher than 140/90 mm Hg (140 systolic or above OR 90 diastolic or above) often become patients treated for serious cardiovascular problems.
Is your blood pressure increasing your risks for these serious medical problems? Use our risk calculator to learn your likelihood of heart attack, stroke, heart failure and kidney disease – and how simple changes can make a difference.
Your risk increases even more if you have high blood pressure along with other risk factors:
- Heredity (including race)
- Gender (male)
- Overweight or obesity
- High cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
Through risk reduction and treatment of HBP, you can lower your risk for many of these diseases.
Are you a likely candidate for High Blood Pressure?
If so, it will be even more important for you to manage your lifestyle with heart-healthier habits. Science has identified several factors that can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure (HBP) and thus your risk for heart attack, heart disease and stroke.
Risks among certain groups:
- African-Americans – If you’re African-American, there’s a good chance that you or a relative has HBP.
- Women – Starting at age 65, women are more likely to have high blood pressure than men.
- Children – While HBP is most common in adults, children can develop it, too.
Risk factors for developing high blood pressure, also called hypertension:
- Family history
- Height, hair and eye color runs in families — so can high blood pressure. If your parents or close blood relatives have had HBP, you are more likely to develop it, too. You might also pass that risk factor on to your children. That’s why it’s important for children as well as adults to have regular blood pressure checks. You can’t control heredity, but you can take steps to live a healthy life and lower your other risk factors. To successfully and healthily lose weight. Learn about lifestyle changes you can make to prevent HBP.
- As we age, we all develop higher risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Blood vessels lose flexibility with age which can contribute to increasing pressure throughout the system.
Gender-related risk patterns:
- A higher percentage of men than women have HBP until 45 years of age. From ages 45 to 54 and 55 to 64, the percentages of men and women with HBP are similar. After that, a much higher percentage of women have HBP than men.
Lack of physical activity:
- Physical activity is good for your heart and circulatory system. An inactive lifestyle increases the chance of high blood pressure, heart disease, blood vessel disease and stroke. Inactivity also makes it easier to become overweight or obese. Give yourself the gift of improved health and lower blood pressure with regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
Poor diet, especially one that includes too much salt:
- To care for our bodies, we all need good nutrition from a variety of food sources. A diet that’s high in calories, fats and sugars and low in essential nutrients contributes directly to poor health as well as to obesity. In addition, there are some problems that can happen from eating too much salt. Some people are “salt sensitive,” meaning a high-salt (sodium) diet raises their high blood pressure. Salt keeps excess fluid in the body that can add to the burden on the heart. While too much salt can be dangerous, healthy food choices can actually lower blood pressure. Learn about enjoying a heart-healthy diet.
Overweight and obesity:
- Being overweight increases your chances of developing high blood pressure. A body mass index between 25 and 30 is considered overweight. A body mass index over 30 is considered obese. About two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. About one in three U.S. children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese. Excess weight increases the strain on the heart, raises blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It can also make diabetes more likely to develop. Losing as little as 10 to 20 pounds can help lower your blood pressure and your heart disease risk. To successfully and healthily lose weight. Calculate your body mass index and learn how to manage your weight.
Drinking too much alcohol:
- Heavy and regular use of alcohol can increase blood pressure dramatically. It can also cause heart failure, lead to stroke and produce irregular heartbeats. Too much alcohol can contribute to high triglycerides, cancer and other diseases, obesity, alcoholism, suicide and accidents. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. If you drink, limit your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. One drink equals a 12-ounce beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, or 1 ounce of hard liquor (100-proof). If you drink in excess, find out about curbing alcohol intake.
Possible contributing factors
There is some connection between blood pressure and these factors but science has not proven that they actually cause high blood pressure.
Being in a stressful situation can temporarily increase your blood pressure, but science has not proven that stress causes high blood pressure. Some scientists have noted a relationship between coronary heart disease risk and stress in a person’s life, health behaviors and socioeconomic status. How you deal with stress may affect other, established risk factors for high blood pressure or heart disease. For example, people under stress may overeat or eat a less healthy diet, put off physical activity, drink, smoke or misuse drugs. Find ways to reduce stress.
Smoking and second-hand smoke
Smoking temporarily raises blood pressure and increases your risk of damaged arteries. The use of tobacco can be devastating to your health, especially if you’re already at risk for high blood pressure. Secondhand smoke — exposure to other people’s smoke — increases the risk of heart disease for nonsmokers. Learn how to kick the habit.
Some 12 million Americans have sleep apnea, according to National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimates. Sleep Apnea is a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder in which tissues in the throat collapse and block the airway. The brain forces the sleeper awake enough to cough or gulp air and open the trachea up again. But then, the whole cycle starts all over again. Pauses in breathing can contribute to severe fatigue during the day, increase your safety risks, and make it difficult to perform tasks that require alertness. Sleep apnea is also a risk factor for such medical problems as high blood pressure, heart failure, diabetes and stroke. Learn more about sleep apnea.
Secondary hypertension: HBP caused by a pre-existing problem
In 5-10 percent of high blood pressure cases, the HBP is caused by a pre-existing problem. This type of HBP is called secondary hypertension because another problem was present first.
Factors that may lead to secondary hypertension include:
- Kidney abnormality, including a tumor on the adrenal gland, which is located on top of the kidneys
- A structural abnormality of the aorta (the large blood vessel leaving the heart) that has existed since birth
- Narrowing of certain arteries
The good news is that these pre-existing problems can usually be fixed. For example, doctors can repair a narrowed artery that supplies blood to a kidney. Once the root cause of secondary hypertension is corrected, blood pressure typically returns to normal. For those with HBP, a physical exam and some tests can help your doctor determine whether your high blood pressure is primary or secondary hypertension.
High blood pressure is just one condition that increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.
to learn about other heart disease and stroke risk factors.
Prevention and Treatment of High Blood Pressure
There are eight main ways you can control your blood pressure:
- Eat a better diet, which may include reducing salt
- Enjoy regular physical activity
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Manage stress
- Avoid tobacco smoke
- Comply with medication prescriptions
- If you drink, limit alcohol
- Understand hot tub safety
Lifestyle modifications are essential. These changes may reduce your blood pressure without the use of prescription medications. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is critical for the prevention of HBP and an indispensable part of managing it. Think of these changes as a “lifestyle prescription” and make every effort to comply with them.
Whether you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, also called hypertension, or are concerned because you have some of the risk factors for the disease, understand this: while there is no cure, high blood pressure is manageable.
By adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle, you can:
- Reduce high blood pressure
- Prevent or delay the development of HBP
- Enhance the effectiveness of blood pressure medications
- Lower your risk of heart attack, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease
Here’s how to do your part:
- Of all people with high blood pressure, over 20 percent are unaware of their condition. This symptomless disease could leave them with substantial health consequences. Are you one of them? If you don’t know, see a healthcare professional to be tested.
Do your part to reach your treatment goals:
- There is no healthy level of high blood pressure. Don’t take life-or-death chances with this disease. Instead, take responsibility! Work with your healthcare professional to determine your treatment goals and map out your best action plan for HBP prevention and management.
Change your life and reduce your risks:
- Even if your blood pressure is normal (less than 120 mm Hg systolic AND less than 80 mm Hg diastolic) and your goal is prevention only, the lifestyle modifications provide a prescription for healthy living.
- If your resting blood pressure falls in the pre-hypertension range (systolic – top number between 120 and 139 mm Hg OR diastolic – bottom number between 80 and 89 mm Hg), your doctor will recommend lifestyle modifications.
Take medication if it is prescribed for you:
- If your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher, your doctor will likely prescribe medication in addition to lifestyle modifications. Follow your healthcare professional’s recommendations carefully, even if it means taking medication every day for the rest of your life. High blood pressure is a lifelong disease, and by partnering with your healthcare team, you can successfully reach your treatment goals and enjoy the benefits of better health.
Once your treatment program becomes routine, maintaining a lower blood pressure is easier. Remind yourself that by managing your blood pressure, you are lowering your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, peripheral artery disease and kidney disease. Death rates from these diseases have decreased significantly, thanks in part to earlier and better treatment of HBP.
Managing blood pressure is a lifelong commitment. Listen to your doctor, read the sound medical information on this site, and act on the information to live a heart-healthier life.