One-third of American adults have a dangerous condition that is so hard to detect that 20 percent of those who have it don’t even know it. Known as the “silent killer,” hypertension causes the heart to work harder than it needs to. Over time, the heart is progressively damaged, increasing your risk of heart attack.
Hypertension is bad for the rest of your body, too. High blood pressure causes clots to form and blood vessels to break. Depending on where in the body this happens, it can lead to a variety of other problems such as blurred vision, blind spots, kidney failure and stroke.
Hypertension wreaks havoc without showing a sign. The only reliable way to catch it is through regular blood pressure readings that measure the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (systolic) and between heartbeats (diastolic). A normal reading is 120/80.
“While the systolic reading is the more important of the two numbers in a blood pressure reading, doctors watch both numbers,” says Bret Ripley, D.O., chairperson of the Family Medicine Clinic at Des Moines University. “A diagnosis of hypertension is made if the systolic is over 140 or the diastolic is over 90. These numbers are chosen because the risk of injury from high blood pressure is thought to be significantly higher than any risk the medication might pose. Even if your stylistic blood pressure is above 160, you may not show symptoms.”
Normally, your blood pressure creeps up as you age at the rate of one to two millimeters of mercury (mmHG) each year. A healthy weight and exercise can help decrease it. The best exercises for blood pressure are aerobic exercises as walking, running and active sports. Yet even well-conditioned athletes cannot always escape high blood pressure.
“We all have a starting point. Optimal health will decrease your risk, but genetics play a big factor,” Ripley says. “Healthy, fit patients can still have high blood pressure because they are genetically programmed to have it.”
Diet plays a role. Eating to maintain a healthy weight helps keep your blood pressure in check. Chronic stress where blood pressure remains elevated for long periods of time can also cause hypertension. Eventually, the high blood pressure becomes the norm and your body adapts to maintain the higher pressure.
There are many different medications to treat high blood pressure, all designed to have very few side effects. Once you’re diagnosed with hypertension, it’s important to continue your treatment.
“Treating blood pressure is a long-term game. You have to stay on your blood pressure treatment and make sure to follow up with your provider regularly to monitor your condition,” says Ripley. “You may be able to get off medications if you significantly change your health status by exercising regularly, improving your diet and/or decreasing your weight.”