High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
Hypertension, high blood pressure, is known as “the silent killer. If left untreated, high blood pressure greatly increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.
The heart pumps blood through a network of arteries, veins, and capillaries. The moving blood pushes against the arterial walls, and this force is measured as blood pressure.
High blood pressure results from the tightening of very small arteries called arterioles. Arterioles regulate the blood flow through your body. As these arterioles tighten (or constrict), your heart has to work harder to pump blood through the smaller space, and the pressure inside the vessels grows.
High blood pressure can affect your health in four main ways:
- Hardening of the arteries. The pressure inside your arteries can cause the muscles that line the walls of the arteries to thicken, thus narrowing the passage. A heart attack or stroke can occur if a blood clot blocks blood flow to your heart or brain.
- Enlarged heart. High blood pressure increases the amount of work for your heart. Like any heavily exercised muscle in your body, your heart grows bigger (enlarges) to handle the extra workload. The bigger your heart is, the more it demands oxygen-rich blood but the less able it is to maintain proper blood flow. As a result, you feel weak and tired and are not able to exercise or perform physical activities. Without treatment, your heart failure will only get worse.
- Kidney damage. Prolonged high blood pressure can damage your kidneys if their blood supply is affected.
- Eye damage. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure can cause the tiny capillaries in the retina of your eye to bleed. This condition, called retinopathy, can lead to blindness.
What causes high blood pressure?
About 90% to 95% of all high blood pressure cases are what is called primary, or essential hypertension. That means the real cause of the high blood pressure is not known, but a number of factors contribute. You are at increased risk if you –
- Have a family history of high blood pressure.
- Are a man, but women are at an increased risk after age 55.
- Are older than 60. Blood vessels become more brittle with age and are not as flexible.
- Face high levels of stress. In some studies, stress, anger, hostility, and other personality traits have been shown to lead to high blood pressure.
- Are overweight or obese.
- Use tobacco products. Smoking damages your blood vessels.
- Use oral contraceptives. Women who smoke and use oral contraceptives greatly increase their risk.
- Eat a diet high in saturated fat.
- Eat a diet high in salt (sodium).
- Drink more than a moderate amount of alcohol. Experts say that moderate intake is an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
- Are physically inactive.