The most frightening thing about high blood pressure is the fact that you can have it for years without knowing it. Hypertension, often called the “silent killer,” can wreak havoc on your vascular system – and threaten your life – if not detected and treated.
It is one of the most common diseases facing people in the U.S., and one that can be easily diagnosed by your primary care doctor during annual physicals.
Your blood pressure reading is expressed with two numbers: systolic and diastolic. The first refers to the pressure when the ventricles are pumping blood out. The second refers to the pressure while the heart is refilling with blood. A normal, healthy, reading would be below 120/80. You have high blood pressure if the first number hits 130 or if the bottom number hits 80.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
There are a variety of factors that can increase your risk for high blood pressure. These include things that are often controllable, including obesity, diabetes and some medications commonly used for allergies and colds. Sometimes, it’s more a matter of luck – with high blood pressure running in some families.
It also can be caused by a range of medical conditions, including:
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Kidney disease
- Adrenal gland tumors
- Thyroid problems
- Illegal drug use
Unfortunately, most cases have no identifiable cause. You can be an athlete who does triathlons and still have high blood pressure. And you can be obese with a host of risk factors, but be free of the disease.
High Blood Pressure Health Risks
One of the challenges of treating high blood pressure is the silent nature of the disease. Since people don’t feel any immediate symptoms, they may be tempted to ignore it – if they even know they have it. But there are serious health complications that can follow, including:
- Heart attack: High blood pressure can cause damage to arteries, blocking blood flow to the heart.
- Stroke: High blood pressure can burst or block blood vessels that supply the brain.
- Heart failure: An overworked heart can become enlarged, hampering its ability to supply blood to the body.
- Kidney disease/failure: Damaged arteries around the kidneys can interfere with blood filtration.
- Vision loss: Blood vessels in the eyes can be strained or damaged.
- Sexual dysfunction: High blood pressure is linked to erectile dysfunction in men and lower libido in women.
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD): Atherosclerosis can lead to narrowed arteries in the legs, arms, stomach and head, causing pain or fatigue.
Controlling High Blood Pressure
Bringing those high numbers down can be accomplished both through lifestyle changes and medication. Wherever possible, the first line of attack is always lifestyle.
- Weight loss: Blood pressure often increases along with your weight. Losing even a few pounds, if you are obese, can make a difference.
- Exercise: The goal is 30 minutes of cardio activity at least five days a week. Optimal choices include activities such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and dancing.
- Eat healthy: Focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy.
- Cut back on the salt: Avoid processed foods and read those nutrition labels. You should eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. A better goal is 1,500 milligrams.
- Stop smoking: Every cigarette increases your blood pressure for several minutes.
- Reduce stress: Often, people cope with stress through other unhealthy habits, including alcohol, smoking and junk food.
- Limit alcohol: Moderate daily consumption (one drink for women or two for men) has the potential to lower your blood pressure. But if you exceed that limit, the result is the opposite.
If lifestyle changes can’t bring your blood pressure under control, medications are often included in your treatment plan. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to choosing a drug. There are multiple classes of medications, including ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, diuretics, calcium channel blockers and angiotensin II receptor blockers. Often, the choice of medication may be influenced by other factors, including heart conditions and diabetes.
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