Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a serious condition that affects about one in three American adults, and two-thirds of people over age 65. Blood pressure is the force of blood as it pumps through your arteries. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries are, the higher the blood pressure.
Normal blood pressure is defined as an average systolic blood pressure of 120 mm Hg and an average diastolic pressure of 80 mm Hg — often said as â€œ120 over 80.â€ Systolic pressure measures the pressure in arteries when your heart beats. Diastolic pressure measures the pressure between beats. Someone has high blood pressure when the average systolic blood pressure is above 140 mm Hg, the diastolic blood pressure is above 90 mm Hg, or both.
High blood pressure raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death among Americans. It is called the “silent killer” because you usually don’t have any symptoms when your blood pressure is too high. Hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity are the biggest contributors to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
It is important to talk to your doctor about how to lower your high blood pressure. In some cases, making changes in your diet and exercise can get blood pressure under control. In other cases, you may need medications.
Signs and Symptoms:
Most people who have high blood pressure do not know they have it because they have no symptoms. Occasionally, some people may have a mild headache when their blood pressure is high. Advanced cases of hypertension may produce the following symptoms:
- Severe headache
- Visual disturbances
There are two major types of hypertension: essential, or primary, and secondary. Primary hypertension is by far the most common, making up more than 95% of all cases. Scientists don’t know what causes primary hypertension, but a combination of factors may be involved, including:
- Genes for high blood pressure
- Low levels of nitric oxide, a naturally occurring substance that makes blood vessels dilate
- Insulin resistance
Secondary hypertension has an underlying cause, which may include:
- Kidney disorders
- Endocrine disorders, such as Cushing syndrome
- Obstructive sleep apnea, where breathing stops for a moment while you are asleep because your airway is obstructed
- Chronic heavy alcohol use
- Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve)
- Certain medications, including some birth control pills, pseudoephedrine, hormone replacement therapy, and steroids
- Use of cocaine, nicotine, or other stimulants or the herb licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) can cause or worsen existing hypertension.
The following factors increase your risk for high blood pressure:
- Being overweight
- Not getting enough exercise
- Having a family history of hypertension
- Being African-American
- Being older
- Drinking too much alcohol or smoking
- High sodium (salt) intake
- Having long-term conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, or high cholesterol.
Each time your heart beats, or contracts, it pumps blood into your arteries. The pressure of the blood against the artery walls is called systolic blood pressure, when blood pressure is at its maximum. When your heart is at rest, between beats, the blood pressure falls, which is known as the diastolic pressure. A person with hypertension has an average systolic blood pressure above 140 mm Hg and/or a diastolic blood pressure above 90 mm Hg — usually written as 140/90.
To diagnose hypertension, your doctor will measure your blood pressure using an inflatable cuff and a stethoscope. If blood pressure is high, your doctor will check your pulse rate, examine your neck for swollen veins or an enlarged thyroid gland, listen to your heart for murmurs, and examine the eyes for damaged blood vessels in the retina. If your doctor suspects hypertension, you may be asked to measure your blood pressure at home or to come back for another office appointment. Additional laboratory and blood tests can help determine if it is secondary or primary hypertension.
Studies suggest that the following actions can help prevent high blood pressure:
Maintaining a proper weight
According to several large-scale, population-based studies, being overweight is one of the strongest indicators that you will develop high blood pressure. That is true for teens and young adults as well as adults. Staying at a healthy weight is one of the most effective things you can do to prevent hypertension. If you are overweight, ask your doctor or nutritionist about safely losing pounds by eating a balanced diet.
Reducing salt intake
Although each person responds to salt in their diet differently, cutting back on salt can help lower blood pressure for some people. The current recommended amount of sodium for healthy people is no more than 2,400 mg per day, and less is better. Most Americans get much more than that from canned, processed, and restaurant foods.
Getting more exercise
Several studies suggest that sedentary people may be at higher risk for developing hypertension. According to some studies, men who lead physically active lives can lower their risk of developing hypertension by 35 – 70 %. Regular exercise also helps keep your weight in check. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise — such as a brisk walk — every day.
Studies suggest that people who have three or more alcoholic drinks per day increase their risk for developing hypertension. If you drink alcohol, limit your intake to one drink per day if you are a woman and two if you are a man.
Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
Most Americans eat diets that are too high in saturated fat and don’ t have enough fruits and vegetables. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which recommends fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy, is often suggested for those who have high blood pressure. It also can help people who are at risk of hypertension.
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