High Blood Pressure Overview
High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a common long-term condition characterized by high pressure in the blood vessels. The arteries are responsible for transporting oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. When there is resistance within the arteries, the heart is forced to work harder than usual, leading to several health complications.
Symptoms of high blood pressure can easily go undetected, so many people have this condition for many years before finding out. High pressure inside the arteries can lead to severe conditions like atherosclerosis, kidney disease, eye damage, heart failure, and stroke.
Although symptoms may go unnoticed, high blood pressure is easy to diagnose. It is common for your doctor to take your blood pressure reading at every appointment. Once high blood pressure is detected, treatment can be administered, and your doctor can help you manage your blood pressure levels.
A blood pressure reading is given in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and comes in two numbers. An example of a healthy blood pressure reading is 120/80 mmHg. The first number represents systolic pressure, which refers to the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number denotes your diastolic pressure, which simply measures the pressure in your arteries between heartbeats. Any blood pressure above 120/80 mmHg is considered higher than normal. Blood pressure is typically categorized as follows:
- Normal: At or below 120/80 mmHg
- Elevated: Between 120/80 and 129/80 mmHg
- High blood pressure stage 1: 130/80 mmHg or above
- High blood pressure stage 2: 140/90 mmHg or above
- Hypertension crisis: 180/120 mmHg or above (requires medical assistance)
Symptoms of Hypertension
Most people do not display any signs or symptoms of hypertension, even when their blood pressure reaches dangerous levels. Shortness of breath, nosebleeds, or a severe headache may indicate high blood pressure, but these symptoms tend to only occur when blood pressure has reached a life-threatening stage.
Because high blood pressure has few observable symptoms and even fewer distinctive symptoms, doctors recommend having your blood pressure checked at least once every two years; you should get your blood pressure checked every year if you are over the age of 40.
Types of High Blood Pressure
Primary high blood pressure is the most common type of this condition. Primary high blood pressure is also known as essential high blood pressure and typically develops over time due to poor lifestyle choices and environmental factors.
The other type of hypertension is known as secondary high blood pressure. Secondary high blood pressure is defined as being caused by another medical condition. This type of hypertension typically resolves after the underlying condition is successfully treated or you stop taking medicines that are increasing your blood pressure. The following conditions have been known to cause secondary hypertension:
- Kidney disease
- Adrenal gland tumors
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Thyroid disease
- Birth control pills, certain medications, or cold remedies
- Illicit drugs like amphetamines and cocaine
High Blood Pressure Causes & Risk Factors
Depending on the type, high blood pressure can occur gradually (chronic) or suddenly (acute). Secondary hypertension is caused by underlying health problems, but what about primary high blood pressure? While specific causes have yet to be identified, researchers have narrowed down the following factors that can increase your risk of hypertension:
Stress. The impact of stress is multi-faceted. Sudden moments of high-stress situations can cause temporary spikes in blood pressure. Stress also tends to cause unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and overeating—all of which can increase blood pressure.
Nutritional imbalance. Too much salt in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, increasing your blood pressure. Additionally, not enough potassium in your diet can contribute to the imbalance of sodium in your cells. As a result, a lack of potassium can cause dehydration, and sodium may build up in your arteries.
Tobacco use. Tobacco products contain chemicals that damage the interior linings of your arteries. Damage to your arterial linings causes the arteries to narrow, significantly spiking your blood pressure and increasing your risk of heart disease.
A sedentary lifestyle. If you lead an inactive lifestyle, you are likely to have a higher heart rate compared to someone who is regularly active. Not exercising enough can subsequently lead to obesity—another major risk factor of hypertension.
Age. Statistics show that the risk for high blood pressure increases with age. Before the age of 65, men are more likely to develop hypertension. After 65, women are at a higher risk.
If your high blood pressure is not severe, implementing healthy lifestyle choices can gradually return your blood pressure to a healthy range. A healthy lifestyle is also incredibly important for those looking to prevent hypertension. Quit smoking if you smoke and look to shed excess weight if your body mass index (BMI) is above 30. These lifestyle changes are easier said than done, but the following tips may help:
- Focus on healthy fats from vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products
- Avoid saturated fat whenever possible
- Eat less salt
- Limit alcoholic drinks to one per day for women and two per day for men
- Practice stress-relieving techniques like yoga, meditation, or a hobby you enjoy
If you need to take medications to lower your blood pressure, these lifestyle changes will enhance the effectiveness of your medications. The earlier you start addressing your blood pressure, the better chance you will have of preventing complications like kidney failure, heart attack, or an aneurysm.