High blood pressure, or hypertension, means that the pressure of blood against the artery walls is elevated. High blood pressure is the most common chronic adult illness in the United States.
It is a dangerous condition that can lead to stroke, blindness, arterial disease, kidney failure, heart attack and heart failure.
There is no cure for high blood pressure, but it can be controlled.
Causes and Risk Factors of High Blood Pressure
In most people, the exact cause of high blood pressure is not known. A small number of people have secondary hypertension, which is high blood pressure caused by medication or another medical condition such as renal disease or atherosclerosis.
Certain risk factors make it more likely that you will develop hypertension:
- Age. The older you are, the greater the chance that high blood pressure will develop
- Race. African Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure and to develop it at a younger age
- Genetics. High blood pressure also can be hereditary
These risk factors can't be changed, but some lifestyle factors, such as being overweight, smoking, consuming too much salt, getting too little exercise or consuming too much alcohol, can be controlled.
At St. Joseph's Heart & Vascular Institute, we offer a number of preventative health programs and tools for our patients.
Diagnosing High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure usually does not cause symptoms; the only way to know if you have it is to have your blood pressure checked. Usually, three measurements that show high blood pressure on three occasions are needed to diagnose hypertension.
Blood pressure measurements are expressed using two numbers, one written over the other. The top number is the systolic blood pressure; it is the pressure of blood against the artery walls when the heart is contracting and pushing blood out. The lower number is the diastolic blood pressure; it is the pressure of blood against artery walls when the heart is resting and filling with blood between heartbeats.
Optimal blood pressure is less than 120/80.
You have hypertension if your resting systolic pressure is consistently 140 or greater and/or your diastolic pressure is consistently 90 or greater.
A systolic pressure of 120 to 139 and a diastolic pressure of 80 to 89 is considered pre-hypertension and means you are at risk for high blood pressure.
Treating High Blood Pressure
Treatment decisions are based on:
- Your blood pressure measurement
- The presence or absence of heart or kidney damage
- The presence of other risk factors.
Your doctor may give you medications right away or may have you try lifestyle changes such as regular exercise or change in diet for up to one year. Depending on your treatment plan and medications prescribed, your doctor will tell you how often to have your blood pressure checked.
Controlling Blood Pressure
In addition to the treatment options above, there are steps that you can take to reduce your high blood pressure and cardiovascular risk:
- Lose weight. A weight loss of even just five to 10 pounds can lower and help control blood pressure
- Exercise regularly. For healthy adults, regular aerobic exercise - walking, running, bicycling or swimming laps - can prevent and reduce high blood pressure
- Control salt in your diet. Limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day
- Limit alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, add weight and make blood pressure control more difficult
- Increase potassium intake. A high intake of potassium may improve your blood pressure control. Not getting enough potassium may actually increase blood pressure
- Quit smoking. Smoking cigarettes does not cause chronic high blood pressure, but smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Find out about our Smoking Cessation class.
- Eat less fat. A low-fat diet may lower blood cholesterol and the risk for coronary artery disease Take your medications. If your doctor prescribes medication, take it as directed
After your blood pressure is controlled, you should continue to have it checked regularly. Usually, you will not have any symptoms to tell you if your blood pressure is elevated. See your doctor at least once a year to make sure your blood pressure is under control.