What’s to know about high blood pressure?

High blood pressure is also known as hypertension. Blood pressure is the amount of force exerted against the walls of the arteries as blood flows through them.

In the United States, approximately 85 million people have high blood pressure – about 1 in every 3 adults over 20, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that about two-thirds of people over the age of 65 in the U.S. have high blood pressure.

If left untreated or uncontrolled, high blood pressure can cause many health problems. These conditions include heart failure, vision loss, stroke, and kidney disease.

Causes

An older man is having his blood pressure measured by a woman.

The risk of developing hypertension increases as people age.

The heart is a muscle that pumps blood around the body.

Blood that has low oxygen levels is pumped towards the lungs, where oxygen supplies are replenished. The oxygen rich blood is then pumped by the heart around the body to supply our muscles and cells. The pumping of blood creates pressure.

If a person has high blood pressure, it means that the walls of the arteries are receiving too much pressure on a constant basis.

The causes of high blood pressure are divided into two categories:

  • Essential high blood pressure: This has no established cause.
  • Secondary high blood pressure: There is an underlying cause.

Even though there is no identifiable cause for essential high blood pressure, there is strong evidence linking some risk factors to the likelihood of developing the condition.

Most of the causes below are risk factors for essential high blood pressure. There are also examples of secondary high blood pressure:

1) Age

The older you are the higher your risk of having high blood pressure.

2) Family history

If you have close family members with hypertension, your chances of developing it are significantly higher. An international scientific study identified eight common genetic differences that may increase the risk of high blood pressure.

3) Temperature

A study that monitored 8,801 participants over the age of 65 found that systolic and diastolic blood pressure values differed significantly across the year and according to the distribution of outdoor temperature. Blood pressure was lower when it got warmer, and rose when it got colder.

4) Ethnic background

Evidence indicates that people with African or South Asian ancestry have a higher risk of developing hypertension, compared to people with predominantly Caucasian or Amerindian (indigenous of the Americas) ancestries.

5) Obesity and overweight

Both overweight and obese people are more likely to develop high blood pressure, compared to people of normal weight.

6) Some aspects of gender

In general, high blood pressure is more common among adult men than adult women. However, after the age of 60 years both men and women are equally susceptible.

7) Physical inactivity

Lack of exercise, as well as having a sedentary lifestyle, raises the risk of hypertension.

8) Smoking

Smoking causes the blood vessels to narrow, resulting in higher blood pressure. Smoking also reduces the blood’s oxygen content so the heart has to pump faster in order to compensate, causing a rise in blood pressure.

9) Alcohol intake

People who drink regularly have higher systolic blood pressure than people who do not, according to researchers. They found that systolic blood pressure levels are about 7 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) higher in people who drink frequently than in people who do not drink.

10) High salt intake

Researchers reported that societies where people do not eat much salt have lower blood pressures than places where people eat a lot of salt.

11) High fat diet

Many health professionals say that a diet high in fat leads to a raised high blood pressure risk. However, most dietitians stress that the problem is not how much fat is consumed, but rather what type of fats.

Fats sourced from plants such as avocados, nuts, olive oil, and omega oils are good for you. Saturated fats, which are common in animal-sourced foods, as well as trans fats, are bad for you.

12) Mental stress

Various studies have offered compelling evidence that mental stress, especially over the long term, can have a serious impact on blood pressure. One study suggested that the way that air traffic controllers handle stress can affect whether they are at risk of developing high blood pressure later in life.

13) Diabetes

People with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing hypertension. Among people with type 1 diabetes, high blood sugar is a risk factor for incident hypertension – effective and consistent blood sugar control, with insulin, reduces the long-term risk of developing hypertension.

People with type 2 diabetes are at risk of hypertension due to high blood sugar, as well as other factors, such as overweight and obesity, certain medications, and some cardiovascular diseases.

14) Psoriasis

A study that followed 78,000 women for 14 years found that having psoriasis was linked to a higher risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes. Psoriasis is an immune system condition that appears on the skin in the form of thick, red scaly patches.

15) Pregnancy

Pregnant women have a higher risk of developing hypertension than women of the same age who are not pregnant. It is the most common medical problem encountered during pregnancy, complicating 2 to 3 percent of all pregnancies.

Signs and symptoms

Most people with high blood pressure will not experience any symptoms. It is often known as the “silent killer” for this reason.

However, once blood pressure reaches about 180/110 mmHg, it is considered a medical emergency known as a hypertensive crisis. At this stage, symptoms will show, including:

  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • blurred or double vision
  • nosebleeds.
  • palpitations, or irregular or forceful beating of the heart
  • breathlessness

Anybody who experiences these symptoms should see their doctor immediately.

Children with high blood pressure may have the following signs and symptoms:

  • headache
  • fatigue
  • blurred vision
  • nosebleeds
  • Bell’s palsy, or an inability to control facial muscles on one side of the face.

Newborns and very young babies with high blood pressure may experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • failure to thrive
  • seizure
  • irritability
  • lethargy
  • respiratory distress

People who are diagnosed with high blood pressure should have their blood pressure checked frequently. Even if yours is normal, you should have it checked at least once every five years, and more often if you have any contributory factors.

Complications

If the hypertension is not treated or controlled the excessive pressure on the artery walls can lead to damage of the blood vessels (cardiovascular disease), as well as vital organs. The extent of damage depends on two factors; the severity of the hypertension and how long it goes on for untreated.

Below is a list of some of the possible complications of high blood pressure:

  • stroke
  • heart attack and heart failure
  • blood clots
  • aneurysm
  • kidney disease
  • thickened, narrow, or torn blood vessels in the eyes
  • metabolic syndrome
  • brain function and memory problems

Treatment

Treatment for high blood pressure depends on several factors, such its severity, associated risks of developing stroke or cardiovascular, disease, etc.

Slightly elevated blood pressure

The doctor may suggest some lifestyle changes if blood pressure is only slightly elevated and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease considered to be small.

Moderately high blood pressure

If blood pressure is moderately high and the doctors believes the risk of developing cardiovascular disease during the next ten years is above 20 percent, the doctor will probably prescribe medication and advised on lifestyle changes.

Severe hypertension

If blood pressure levels are 180/110 mmHg or higher, the doctor will refer the individual to a specialist.

Changes in lifestyle can help lower high blood pressure

The following are recommended lifestyle changes that can help you lower your blood pressure. Note that you should always check with a Doctor or healthcare professional to discuss lifestyle changes before making any dramatic changes yourself.

Regular exercise

A regular program of exercise can prove beneficial in lowering blood pressure.

Exercising for 30 to 60 minutes five days a week will usually lower a person’s blood pressure by 4 to 9 mmHg. If you embark on an exercise program you should see the benefits fairly soon – within a matter of two to three weeks, especially if you have been leading a sedentary lifestyle for a long time.

It is important to make sure you check with your doctor before embarking on any physical activity program. Exercise needs to be tailored to the needs and health of the person with hypertension.

The secret of getting success out of exercise is to do it regularly. Exercising at weekends and doing nothing from Monday to Friday will be much less effective.

Losing weight

Studies have revealed that even moderate weight loss – just ten pounds – can have a significant impact in lowering elevated blood pressure.

If you are overweight, the nearer you get to your ideal weight the more your blood pressure is likely to fall. Any high blood pressure medications you are taking will become more effective when you lose weight.

Reducing your waistline will have the greatest effect. Achieving a healthy body weight involves a combination of exercise, good diet, and at least 7 hours good quality sleep each night.

Scientists at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research discovered that keeping a food diary can double weight loss as part of a managed program.

Relaxation techniques

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that adding the relaxation response, a stress-management approach, to other lifestyle modifications may significantly improve treatment of the type of hypertension most common in the elderly.

Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported that in one study, tai chi significantly boosted exercise capacity, lowered blood pressure, and improved levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and C-reactive protein in people at high risk for heart disease.

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