High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the most common type of cardiovascular disease. Defined as the force of blood pressing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood, high blood pressure can lead to diseases such as stroke, heart disease, kidney failure and vision loss. Hypertension, often called the silent killer, affects one in three people (approximately 74.5 million) in the United States alone.
One of the most dangerous aspects of hypertension is that you may not know that you have it. There are generally no obvious symptoms so you may not feel its affects. In fact, nearly one-third of people who have hypertension don't know it. The only way to diagnose it is to have it checked on a regular basis. This is especially important if you have a family history of high blood pressure.
Blood pressure is read as "the higher number over the lower number." The higher number, or systolic pressure, measures the pressure against the walls of the arteries when the heart beats and is pumping blood. The lower number, or diastolic pressure, is the pressure when the heart is at rest between beats. The units used to measure blood pressure are millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
The American Heart Association blood pressure categories are defined as:
• Normal blood pressure: less than 120/80 mmHg
• Prehypertension: 120-139/80-89 mmHg
• Stage 1 Hypertension:140-159/90-99 mmHg
• Stage 2 Hypertension: 160 or greater/ 100 or greater mmHg
• Hypertensive Crisis: 180 or greater/110 or greater
Blood pressure levels above 120/80 can raise your risk, which grows as your blood pressure rises. Years of high blood pressure can lead to damage of the artery walls, resulting in stiff and narrow arteries. This can potentially lead to a heart attack.
However, one high reading doesn't necessarily mean you have high blood pressure. If your blood pressure reading is higher than normal, your doctor may monitor you over a period of time or have you monitor your own blood pressure at home before diagnosing you with hypertension. If you discover that your blood pressure is over 180/110, do not wait to see if it comes down on its own, seek emergency medical treatment immediately.
Hypertension is a symptomless disease, except in its most extreme cases. If your blood pressure is exceptionally high (greater than 180/110), there may be certain symptoms to look out for, including:
• Severe headache
• Fatigue or confusion
• Vision problems
• Chest pain
• Difficulty breathing
• Irregular heartbeat
• Blood in the urine
• Pounding in your chest, neck, or ears
Research has shown that combinations of certain risk factors can increase your risk of developing hypertension and consequently, heart disease. These factors include:
• Have a family history of high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes
• Are African American
• Are over the age of 55
• Are overweight
• Are not physically active
• Drink excessively
• Eat foods high in saturated fats or sodium
• Use certain medications such as NSAIDs, decongestants, and illicit drugs such as cocaine
The good thing about high blood pressure is that it is treatable. There are a few basic lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your blood pressure:
• Eat a diet lower in sodium
• Participate in regular physical activity
• Maintain a healthy weight
• Manage stress
• Quit smoking
• Limit alcohol intake
High blood pressure is just one condition that increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. There are many other conditions that put you at risk. In honor of American Heart Month, be sure to take charge of your own heart health by making an appointment with your doctor and managing your lifestyle.
• Dr. Joe Chavez is a cardiologist on staff with Carson Tahoe Regional Healthcare.