When was the last time you checked your blood pressure?
Or visited a doctor with concerns about your weight, stress levels, or family history of poor health?
If your answer to either question is far too long, then it might be time to make that call. It also would be smart to familiarize yourself with one of the most common, potentially harmful and yet very preventable diseases today - hypertension.
What is Hypertension?
Hypertension is better known to most Americans as high blood pressure.
All too common, hypertension is the most prevalent cardiovascular disease. Roughly 30% or 75 million US adults have high blood pressure and the older you get, the risk increases, even if many don’t know it.
Often referred to as a silent killer, the biggest threat of hypertension is that, whether it be from lifestyle or heredity, many Americans may not realize they suffer from it.
Types and Symptoms of Hypertension
On its surface, blood pressure is one of the more mundane functions within our bodies. Our hearts pump blood and the blood, in turn, flows through our arteries.
Blood pressure is the measure of how much blood your heart pumps and the resistance the blood faces as it passes through arteries. The combination of more blood being pumped while encountering greater resistance results in hypertension.
If left unchecked, this increased pressure and stress on your arteries is anything but mundane.
The most immediate impact of hypertension is damage to blood vessels. Vessels can weaken to the point of forming an aneurysm, which can be deadly.
Equally catastrophic is the impact hypertension has on your organs.
Kidney failure and eye disease are the most common outcomes of unchecked high blood pressure, but blocked arteries also limit blood flow to other vital systems, including the brain, resulting is vascular dementia.
The most widely known medical conditions that stem from unhealthy blood pressure levels are heart disease and stroke - both of which can cause death.
In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women.
Types of Hypertension
High blood pressure can be classed into two types: primary or essential hypertension or secondary hypertension.
Primary hypertension develops over time - in many cases over the course of years or decades. In many cases, there is no direct cause or source for the increase in blood pressure.
When speaking to the silent killer aspect of high blood pressure, primary hypertension is most often the type referenced.
Secondary hypertension, however, develops from a preexisting or underlying condition. Far more sudden, secondary hypertension also results in higher blood pressure versus the primary form.
Secondary hypertension can usually be traced back to one of the following:
- Defects in blood vessels (which typically occurs at birth)
- Obesity or resultant diabetes
- Problems with adrenal glands, the kidneys, or the thyroid
- Sleep apnea
- Use of both over the counter and prescription drugs such as birth control, cold and flu medicines, decongestants, and pain relievers
- Use of illegal drugs, including amphetamines and cocaine
As we’ve noted, high blood pressure may develop over the course of many years without an individual even realizing it. As such, symptoms can be scarce, with some early indicators mistaken for non-specific ailments or other maladies - things like headaches, nosebleeds or shortness of breath.
Should your blood pressure reaches critical levels or becomes excessively high, one of the following could be a clear indicator of the rapid increase:
- Abnormal or irregular heartbeat
- Blood in urine
- Chest pain (or if pounding sensation occurs in chest, ears or neck)
- Difficulty breathing
- Fatigue (especially if severe, or occurs without prior physical exertion)
- Severe headache
- Vision becomes blurred
With such a small list of identifiable symptoms, which again could indicate a different medical concern altogether, regular visits to the doctor coupled with ongoing monitoring of blood pressure are critical to early hypertension diagnosis.
Who’s at Risk for Hypertension?
In a word, everybody.
Regardless of the current state of your health - good or bad - every individual is susceptible to high blood pressure.
Very healthy individuals who exercise regularly and watch what they eat could have family histories that make them more prone to hypertension.
Conversely, people with no family history that smoke or are overweight leave themselves open to developing hypertension.
But it’s more than just heredity or weight. Here are ten major factors that play a crucial role in determining whether you’re at an elevated risk for hypertension:
- Age: The older you are, the greater your chance for hypertension. Gender does play a role as men are more likely to see high blood pressure up to age 64. After age 65, it becomes more common in women.
- Alcohol: Alcohol can possess some healthy attributes, but if consumed in excess it can negatively affect your blood pressure.
- Heredity: If your family has a history of high blood pressure make it known to your physician and ensure regular monitoring is part of your lifestyle.
- Inactivity: Those who avoid physical activity, whether it’s exercise or any other form of general exertion, are more prone to weight gain and obesity. They also typically have higher heart rates, meaning the heart has to work harder which can damage arteries.
- Obesity: If you are obese or overweight, you will require more blood to be pumped to meet your body’s needs for nutrients and oxygen. This not only increases the blood pumping through your body, but it also increases the stress on the arteries carrying it.
- Pre Existing Conditions: As we covered with secondary hypertension, the presence of certain conditions may increase the likelihood of hypertension - sleep apnea, diabetes, or kidney disease among them.
- Race: African Americans are more susceptible to high blood pressure than other racial or ethnic groups with African American men being the most at risk.
- Stress: For many, increased stress may lead to elevated blood pressure, which can be harmful even if the increase is brief.
- Tobacco Use: Among the laundry list of health-related items that tobacco use negatively impacts is a temporary increase in blood pressure and damage to your arteries. This includes chewing tobacco and secondhand smoke.
- Too Much Sodium or Too Little Potassium: Although salt may add plenty of flavor to your food, it also increases your blood pressure. For its part, potassium helps to regulate the sodium levels in your body and too little potassium will increase your sodium levels.
How to Treat or Avoid Hypertension
To be sure, hypertension is a serious condition that will eventually deteriorate an individual’s health if left untreated.
It’s not all bleak, however.
Better control of your blood pressure results in far lower risks of heart disease, stroke, and other potentially harmful outcomes. Even if diagnosed, there are plenty of ways an individual can control their hypertension.
First, an increasingly common method for managing hypertension is through prescription medication.
Of course, concerns exist over prescribed controls, including potentially harmful side effects and the need to be tied to a regular, artificial means of management. For many who suffer from high blood pressure, there is a better solution.
Many medical professionals agree that perhaps the best way to treat hypertension and to keep blood pressure levels within healthy ranges is through a patient’s lifestyle.
Here are seven main factors in helping to keep hypertension at bay:
- Maintain a Healthy Weight: Nobody expects you have a perfectly toned physique, but fewer overall pounds directly relates to lower blood pressure. Keeping your waistline slimmer will also help as too much weight around your midsection increases your risk for hypertension.
- Maintain a Healthy Diet: Part of keeping a healthy weight means eating a healthy diet. More than that though, consuming the right foods for heart health - fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products low in fat - and avoiding the wrong ones - saturated fat and cholesterol - can drastically reduce your risk for hypertension.
- Cut Back on Salt: In addition to being mindful of your overall diet, cutting back on salt, even if just a little, will have a considerable impact on lowering blood pressure. Opt for non-processed foods and flavor your meals with herbs and spices.
- Reduce Your Alcohol Consumption: A drink or two a day has been shown to carry some positive outcomes for an individual’s health. Excessive drinking, however, can have the opposite effect including increasing your blood pressure and reducing the effectiveness of blood pressure medications.
- Quit Smoking: It should go without saying at this point, but steering clear of all tobacco products will add years to your life and keep your blood pressure down while you live them.
- Become More Active: Not just exercise, but regular, consistent activity will keep your blood pressure levels within an acceptable range and your hypertension risk low. While all forms of exercise will positively impact your health, something as simple as a brisk daily walk will do wonders for your heart health.
- Relax: Finally, keep your stress levels low. Chronic, consistent stress doesn’t just increase your risk of hypertension. It can lead you toward other unhealthy habits that may further complicate your heart health. Be mindful of your particular stress triggers, keep your expectations for both personal and professional endeavors realistic, and make time for yourself to decompress and pursue activities you enjoy to take your mind off the daily grind.
Individuals both healthy and unhealthy can have high blood pressure. So regardless of your current health, specific regimen, or potential risk factors you should take the threat of hypertension seriously.
It’s essential to meet with a physician and monitor your blood pressure regularly to stay on top of any changes in your body’s natural rhythms. Doing so will not only keep your blood pressure low and hypertension at bay, but it could potentially save your life.