High blood pressure can lurk quietly in your body, causing slow but steady damage over time. If undetected and untreated, it can wreak havoc on your heart, arteries, kidneys, eyes and other organs. In a worst-case scenario, it can lead to heart disease and death.
It’s estimated that nearly half of all U.S. adults have high blood pressure, often called the silent killer.
Let’s look at some key facts you should know about the disease.
1. You May Not Realize You Have High Blood Pressure
It is estimated that one in three adults with high blood pressure don’t even know they have it. For many people, the first inkling of trouble doesn’t come until they see a doctor for an unrelated reason. During any routine medical exam, you’ll have your blood pressure measured and recorded. This is one of the many reasons you should have routine checkups with your doctor. And if you have a family history of hypertension, you should be even more vigilant. The earlier the problem is identified, the sooner you can start working on getting your blood pressure under control.
2. Sometimes There Are Symptoms
If your hypertension has gone unchecked for a long time, you may start to feel symptoms. This may mean your condition has reached a severe or life-threatening stage. At this point, you may have irreversible damage to organs, including your kidneys, heart and brain. Those symptoms include:
- Severe headaches
- Shortness of breath
- Blurred vision
- Chest pain
3. What Causes High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is categorized as primary or secondary. Primary hypertension represents most of the cases and it’s also known as idiopathic or essential hypertension; in 95% of the cases a secondary cause is unknown, and it usually runs in the families. Secondary hypertension can be linked to a specific condition such as abnormal arteries, hormonal disorders, kidney disease or sleep apnea, or triggers such as oral contraceptives or steroids. The risk of primary hypertension can be increased by lifestyle factors, including lack of exercise, smoking, excessive drinking and poor diet. There’s also a variant known as white coat hypertension – when your blood pressure is only higher when measured in a doctor’s office.
4. Key Risk Factors
Risk factors can be divided into two groups: things you can control and things you can’t. There’s nothing you can do about your age, race or genetics. But there are many modifiable risk factors, including:
- Lack of physical activity
- Tobacco use
- Eating too much salt
- Low potassium levels
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Chronic conditions (including diabetes and elevated cholesterol levels)
Left untreated, high blood pressure will slowly damage your body vessels over time. The range of potential complications is wide. At the top of the list is the threat of coronary artery disease, heart failure and death. Also at risk is your brain, with narrowed or blocked arteries increasing your chances for stroke and dementia.
High blood pressure is also a leading cause of kidney failure and can damage the tiny blood vessels that supply your eyes, which can damage your vision and even cause blindness. And both men and women can suffer sexual dysfunction.
6. What Your Blood Pressure Numbers Mean
Before getting into an analysis of your numbers, let’s consider what they represent. The upper number is known as systolic, which measures the force of your blood when your heart is beating. The second number is known as diastolic, which measures the force of your blood when your heart is resting between beats. Blood pressure can be broken into five categories:
- Normal: Numbers are less than 120/80.
- Elevated: Systolic reading is 120-129 and your diastolic number is less than 80.
- Stage one hypertension: Systolic is 130-139 or your diastolic is 80 to 89.
- Stage two hypertension: Readings are consistently 140/90 or higher.
- Hypertension crisis: Above 180/120 is considered a potential emergency situation.
7. How Hypertension Is Treated
Treating high blood pressure often involves a multilayered approach. There are various types of medications available to help. But lifestyle changes can make a significant difference. Your doctor will work with you to develop a plan. Among the best options:
- Lose weight
- Eat healthier (focusing on fruits, vegetables and whole grains)
- Cut back on salt (ideally less than a teaspoon a day)
- Eat more potassium (bananas, avocados and potatoes, with skin)
- Exercise (aim for 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week)
- Drink less alcohol
- Quit smoking
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