Blood pressure is one of the most commonly checked measures of a person’s health, a routine test given by virtually every kind of doctor. That’s because having high blood pressure puts you at risk for a variety of serious diseases, including heart attack, heart failure and stroke.
“One of the things it can do is it makes the heart work harder,” says Steven Almany, M.D., director of the catheterization lab at Beaumont.
Blood pressure is defined as the force of your blood pushing against your blood vessels. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.
A little over a quarter of adults in the U.S. suffer from high blood pressure, Dr. Almany says. But while severe cases may cause headaches, nosebleeds or shortness of breath, most people with high blood pressure typically exhibit no symptoms. So the average person may go years with high blood pressure and not even know it.
What’s Considered Normal?
Blood pressure is expressed in a way that looks like a fraction, with the systolic number over the diastolic number. The American Heart Association considers normal blood pressure to be readings below 120/80, while systolic readings above 120 become more problematic.
“The numbers have come down pretty consistently over time” as the medical science evolves, Dr. Almany says.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
Roughly 95 percent of the time, it’s not possible to find the direct cause of high blood pressure - what doctors label “essential hypertension,” Dr. Almany explains. This type tends to run in families, is more common among African Americans, and affects men more often than women. It also typically develops gradually over time.
When a cause is identified, called “secondary hypertension,” the condition tends to appear more suddenly and lead to higher blood pressure. Causes include kidney disease, sleep apnea, thyroid problems and other abnormalities.
What Are the Risk Factors?
There are many risk factors that contribute to high blood pressure:
- being overweight or obese
- lack of exercise
- too much salt in your diet
- too little potassium in your diet
- drinking too much alcohol
- old age
- family history
- certain chronic conditions
How is it Treated?
When there’s no obvious cause, doctors typically treat high blood pressure with medication. But certain risk factors are reversible, like quitting smoking, managing stress, following a healthier diet with less salt, getting regular exercise and losing weight.
If you have high blood pressure, it’s a good idea to get serious about bringing it down. Dr. Almany says studies have found that bringing your systolic blood pressure down by 10 points brings a 20-percent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.