What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps out blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage the body in many ways.
When your heart beats (contracts), pumping blood into your arteries, your blood pressure peaks. This is called systolic pressure. Between beats, when your heart relaxes and refills with blood, your blood pressure is at its lowest. This is called diastolic pressure. Your blood pressure reading uses these two numbers. Usually the systolic number comes before or above the diastolic number. A normal reading would be something like 120/80 (written as "120 over 80").
How do I know if I have high blood pressure?
The relationship between your heart and your blood pressure is a simple, but powerful one: the more work your heart has to do, the higher your blood pressure will be. This relationship is also why it's so important to know whether or not you have high blood pressure—otherwise known as hypertension.
Hypertension doesn't usually have obvious symptoms, which means it can go unnoticed—and untreated—for years. Because of this, it is known as a 'silent killer.' But there are ways to find out if you have high blood pressure.
While some people with hypertension may start to notice mild symptoms like headaches, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, nosebleeds and other bleeding (such as bleeding gums), these are not reliable indicators that you're experiencing hypertension. The best way to find out if you have high blood pressure is by getting a simple test at your doctor's office or local health clinic.
To get an accurate reading of your systolic and diastolic blood pressures (the top number measures the force at which the heart pumps, while the bottom number measures the resistance in the arteries when the heart rests between beats), try taking a few readings over 2-3 days before visiting a doctor or nurse practitioner (NP). If you'd rather take these readings on different days from home than from an office environment that may make you nervous or anxious (since these emotional states can affect your results), sit quietly for 5 minutes before taking each reading, and follow these steps:
Place yourself in a comfortable position with one arm supported at heart level
Use an appropriately sized cuff based on arm circumference
Rest in silence for 30 seconds before beginning measurement
Slowly inflate cuff until pulse cannot be felt
What are the risk factors for hypertension?
Hypertension is the number one cause of strokes and heart attacks, and it's getting worse—especially in people who are overweight or obese. It's a preventable, treatable condition that can be managed with lifestyle changes, but without them you're at risk for serious health problems. If your blood pressure has been consistently high for years and you've already had a stroke or have been diagnosed with heart failure, talk to your doctor about taking steps to to improve your risk factors as soon as possible. The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age. Until about age 64, high blood pressure is more common in men. Women are more likely to develop high blood pressure after age 65. The most common risk factors include;
Race. High blood pressure is particularly common among people of African heritage, often developing at an earlier age than it does in whites. Serious complications, such as stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, also are more common in people of African heritage.
Family history. High blood pressure tends to run in families.
Being overweight or obese. The more you weigh, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the amount of blood flow through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls.
Not being physically active. People who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction and the stronger the force on your arteries. Lack of physical activity also increases the risk of being overweight.
Using tobacco. Not only does smoking or chewing tobacco immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow and increase your risk of heart disease. Secondhand smoke also can increase your heart disease risk.
Too much salt (sodium) in your diet. Too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.
Too little potassium in your diet. Potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. A proper balance of potassium is critical for good heart health. If you don't get enough potassium in your diet, or you lose too much potassium due to dehydration or other health conditions, sodium can build up in your blood.
Drinking too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than one drink a day for women and more than two drinks a day for men may affect your blood pressure. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
Stress. High levels of stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure. Stress-related habits such as eating more, using tobacco or drinking alcohol can lead to further increases in blood pressure.
Certain chronic conditions. Certain chronic conditions also may increase your risk of high blood pressure, including kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea.o your doctor about taking steps to improve your risk factors as soon as possible. Good habits include:
How can I lower my blood pressure?
If you want to lower your blood pressure, here's what you should do:
Quit smoking or don't start
Get plenty of exercise -- 150 minutes per week is recommended
Lose weight if you're overweight or obese -- a doctor can help with this
Reduce sodium intake -- less than 1500 mg per day is recommended for people with hypertension
Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean sources of protein. This includes following the DASH eating plan (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or Mediterranean diet. These diets are focused on improving heart health by reducing sodium intake and increasing potassium and fiber intake. They both emphasize eating foods rich in antioxidants. As an example, a typical DASH meal plan might include whole-grain breads, fish, poultry without skin, nonfat dairy products or soy milk instead of whole milk and low-sodium processed foods such as soups and canned vegetables. The Mediterranean diet also emphasizes eating healthy fats like olive oil instead of butter as well as limiting red meat consumption. This type of eating plan may also incorporate more fish consumption than the typical American diet but less red meat consumption than the typical American diet. You can find many different recipes online that follow these dietary guidelines.
Limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men (this means 12 ounces [355 milliliters] of beer; 5 ounces [148 milliliters] of wine; 1 1/2 ounces [44 milliliters] of 80-proof distilled spirits). Alcohol can raise your blood pressure even more if combined with medications that cause high blood pressure. It's important to avoid alcohol if you are taking prescription medication for high blood pressure because it could increase side effects from the medication. Speak with your doctor about the risks associated with alcohol use based on medical history and current medications being taken before drinking alcohol regularly or binge drinking at any time.
In most cases, you can control your high blood pressure by making lifestyle changes.
In most cases, you can control your high blood pressure by making lifestyle changes. Your doctor will recommend specific actions based on whether you have primary or secondary hypertension, but some general measures are:
Take any prescribed medications as directed.
Make dietary changes, such as reducing salt intake and increasing potassium in your diet.
Limit alcohol consumption.
Lose weight if you're overweight or obese.
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