You probably know that your blood pressure is a key component of your overall health. You may also know that it’s important to prevent high blood pressure if you don’t already have it and to manage high blood pressure properly if you’ve been diagnosed with it. In this article, we’ll explore high blood pressure (also called hypertension), why it’s important, risk factors, how to monitor it, and what you should ask your doctor about it.
What is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is a measurement of the force that blood exerts on your arteries as your heart pumps it through your body. You may remember that blood vessels – including arteries, veins, and capillaries – carry blood throughout your body. Arteries carry oxygenated blood away from the heart to other parts of the body, while veins carry low-oxygen blood back toward the heart to be resupplied with oxygen.
What is Hypertension and Why is It Important?
It is usual for your blood pressure to change throughout the day due to a variety of reasons. However, if your blood pressure remains high chronically (for a long period of time), it places you at higher risk for health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, damage to your eyes, vascular dementia, and more.1
Hypertension is often called a “silent killer” because it usually causes no symptoms and most people aren’t even aware that they have it. However, high blood pressure is extremely common. In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention2:
- In 2017, nearly half a million deaths in the United States included hypertension as a primary or contributing cause.
- Only about 1 in 4 adults (24%) with hypertension have their condition under control.
- Half of adults (30 million) with blood pressure ≥140/90 mm Hg who should be taking medication to control their blood pressure aren’t prescribed or aren’t taking medication.
Given the potential health impacts of hypertension along with its prevalence, you can see why understanding, preventing, and controlling it are vitally important in order to protect your health.
Blood Pressure by the Numbers
Blood pressure is defined by two numbers, for example, 120/80 mmHg. You may hear your healthcare practitioner express it verbally as “one twenty over eighty.” The first number (120 in this example) is called the “systolic” pressure, and it refers to the pressure when your heart contracts or beats. The second number (80 in this example) is called the “diastolic” pressure, and it refers to the pressure when your heart relaxes between beats. The “mmHg” stands for “millimeters of Mercury,” a scientific unit used to express measurements of pressure.
A “normal” blood pressure is generally considered to be less than 120/80 mmHg. If your blood pressure is persistently higher than this, your physician may recommend treatment including lifestyle changes and/or medications to help control your blood pressure.
It’s important to monitor your blood pressure regularly whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure. Your healthcare provider can check your blood pressure for you at an upcoming visit, or you can check it yourself at home using a blood pressure monitor. Many pharmacies also have blood pressure monitoring kiosks where you can check your blood pressure free of charge. Keep a record of your blood pressure measurements and take them with you to your next visit with your primary care practitioner. Your doctor can tell you more about how, when, and how often to monitor your blood pressure based on your particular situation.
Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure
There are many risk factors for high blood pressure. Some of them are outside of your control, such as:
- Family health history (High blood pressure often runs in families.)
- Age (High blood pressure is more common as we age.)
- Race or Ethnicity (According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “High blood pressure is more common in African American adults than in white, Hispanic, or Asian adults. Compared with other racial or ethnic groups, African Americans tend to have higher average blood pressure numbers and get high blood pressure earlier in life.”2)
There are also risk factors that contribute to high blood pressure that you may be able to influence, including:
- Unhealthy Diet (Diets that include too much sodium, which often comes from prepared foods, and low potassium can contribute to high blood pressure)
- Overweight or Obesity (Your heart has to work harder to pump blood when you’re overweight or obese, which can eventually put a strain on your blood vessels and contribute to high blood pressure.)
- Sedentary Lifestyle (Physical activity helps to keep your heart healthy and can help control your weight. A lack of physical activity can contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, and many other health conditions.)
- Tobacco Use (Smoking and tobacco use increase your risk for high blood pressure and many other health conditions.)
- Overuse of Alcohol (Overuse of alcohol can contribute to high blood pressure.)
- Diabetes (Approximately 60% of people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure.)
Talk to Your Health Care Practitioner About Hypertension
If you’re concerned about your risk factors for hypertension or haven’t had your blood pressure checked recently, be sure to discuss it with your primary care provider at your next visit. Your doctor can provide you with information about how to best prevent hypertension. If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, be sure to work with your provider to develop a plan to actively manage your condition through healthy lifestyle choices and blood pressure medications, if needed.
Helpful Hypertension Resources
To learn more about hypertension, be sure to check out these helpful resources:
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
- American Heart Association
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention*. Facts About Hypertension. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/facts.htm. Retrieved 2/16/20
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. High Blood Pressure. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/high-blood-pressure. Retrieved 2/16/20.
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention*. About High Blood Pressure. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/about.htm. Retrieved 2/16/20.
*Reference to specific commercial products, manufacturers, companies, or trademarks does not constitute its endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. Government, Department of Health and Human Services, or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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