Taking a hyper-close look at high blood pressure
When a condition is referred to as “the silent killer” by medical professionals, you know it’s serious. Yet not everyone takes hypertension seriously.
Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, is a common condition where the force of the blood against your artery walls gets high enough to eventually cause health problems, such as heart disease.
How common is hyperdistention? According to the CDC, nearly half of all adults in the United States have hypertension or are taking medication for hypertension. And only about one in four adults with hypertension have their condition under control.
What’s even more challenging - the number of people who have hypertension is increasing.
“I attribute the increase in hypertension to busy lifestyles,” according to Tiffani Strange, a certified nurse practitioner at Adena. “Working families are often eating on the go which usually entails fast food, which is higher in fried foods, increased sodium and generally unhealthy options. Fast foods are also losing healthy menu ideas, which may attribute to an increase in hypertension.”
Understanding the numbers
Blood pressure is measured by the amount of blood your heart pumps and the amount of resistance to blood flow in your arteries. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.
A blood pressure reading is given in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). It has two numbers:
- Systolic pressure - The first (or top) number measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats.
- Diastolic pressure - The second (bottom) number measures the pressure in your arteries between beats.
Understanding the categories
The American Heart Association recognizes five blood pressure ranges:
- Normal - Blood pressure numbers of less than 120/80 mm Hg are considered within the normal range.
- Elevated - Elevated blood pressure is when readings consistently range from 120-129 systolic and less than 80 mm Hg diastolic.
- Hypertension Stage 1 – This is when blood pressure consistently ranges from 130-139 systolic or 80-89 mm Hg diastolic.
- Hypertension Stage 2 – This is when blood pressure consistently ranges at 140/90 mm Hg or higher.
- Hypertensive crisis - This stage of high blood pressure requires medical attention. If your blood pressure readings suddenly exceed 180/120 mm Hg, wait five minutes and test your blood pressure again. If your readings are still unusually high, contact your doctor immediately.
Why so silent (and serious)
The strangest thing about hypertension is the symptoms – there usually aren’t any. Most people with high blood pressure show no signs, even if blood pressure readings reach dangerously high levels. Some people experience headaches, shortness of breath or nosebleeds, but these aren't specific symptoms of hypertension and usually don't happen until high blood pressure has reached a severe or life-threatening stage.
High blood pressure should not be taken lightly. It can lead to serious complications, including:
- Heart attack or stroke
- Heart failure
- Weakened and narrowed blood vessels in your kidneys
- Thickened, narrowed or torn blood vessels in the eyes, causing vision loss
- Metabolic syndrome, which can cause diabetes and heart disease
- Trouble with memory or understanding
Where to get your blood pressure checked
Having your blood pressure taken is normally part of a routine doctor's appointment. You should ask your doctor for a blood pressure reading at least every two years starting at age 18. If you're age 40 or older, or you're 18 to 39 with a high risk of high blood pressure, ask for a reading every year. Your doctor will do more-frequent readings if you've already been diagnosed with high blood pressure or have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
You can also check your blood pressure at health fairs or other locations in your community, as well as blood pressure machines found in some retail stores and pharmacies. These machines can provide helpful information about your blood pressure, but they have limitations. The accuracy of these machines depends on several factors, such as the correct cuff size and proper use of the machines. Ask your doctor for advice on using public blood pressure machines.
High blood pressure has many risk factors, including:
- Age - The risk of high blood pressure increases as you get older
- Race - High blood pressure is particularly common among members of the Black community, who often develop it at an earlier age
- Family history - High blood pressure tends to run in families
- Certain chronic conditions - High blood pressure can be caused by health issues such as kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea
- Being overweight
- Not being physically active
- Using tobacco
- Too much salt (sodium) in your diet
- Too little potassium in your diet
- Drinking too much alcohol
In some cases, pregnancy can also lead to high blood pressure.
What you can do
Talk to your doctor about hypertension. There are many effective medications available to help you get your numbers under control. If you have high blood pressure and are worried about taking medication, there are lifestyle changes you can make.
Besides the obvious – diet and exercise – these changes may include:
- Using less salt
- Cutting back on alcohol consumption
- Quitting smoking
- Cutting back on caffeine
- Lowering your stress
- Monitoring your blood pressure at home
You can also get your friends and family involved. Their support, along with possibly joining a support group, can give you the morale boost you need to get your blood pressure under control.
Treated or untreated – take it seriously
Whether you take medication for high blood pressure or (still) don’t think hypertension is something you should worry about, it’s important to stay on top of your health.
“This is a very serious, multifaceted disease that should be taken serious as soon as the increase in blood pressure begins,” says Tiffani. “A common misconception about hypertension is once started on medication, you will have to stay on medication. This is not always true. If someone is serious about their health, diet and exercise can change and lower your blood pressure, so you may be able to discontinue medications in the future.”