High blood pressure is becoming increasingly common and can cause serious health conditions. But how do you know if you have it? And what can you do to prevent/lower it?
What is high blood pressure?
High blood pressure or “hypertension” is one of the most common chronic health conditions in the world and is known as one of the major “cardiovascular risk factors”. Chronic hypertension causes anomalies and stiffening of the arterial walls due to the permanent mechanical pressure exerted on them; and significantly increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, blindness, kidney failure and cognitive disorders.
Hypertension usually has no single identifiable cause (known as “essential” or “primary” hypertension). However, certain risk factors are linked to its onset such as age, which is associated with a decrease in the elasticity of the arteries. Other risk factors include excess body weight, smoking, sedentary lifestyle or an unbalanced diet. In around 10% of cases, hypertension is called “secondary” as it is caused by another disease such as a kidney, adrenal gland, neurovascular or hormonal disorder. Finally, in rare cases, high blood pressure can have a genetic cause.
Hypertension is often called the “silent killer” as it often has no warning signs or symptoms. It is estimated that 75 million people in the US alone have hypertension, and only half of them are aware of it or are taking steps to address it. However, some signs may be present and alert to the presence of high blood pressure. These can include a constant headache or a severe headache in the morning, dizziness, blurred vision, heart palpitations, sweating and even regular nosebleeds.
If high blood pressure usually has no symptoms, how do I know if I have it?
Blood pressure measurement and monitoring provide a real benefit as these make it possible to detect hypertension earlier, before the onset of complications. Blood pressure measurements are expressed as two numbers. The first (higher) number corresponds to your “systolic” blood pressure. This is when the heart contracts and pushes blood into the arteries. The second (lower) number corresponds to your “diastolic” blood pressure. This is when the heart relaxes. Blood pressure is measured in “millimetres of mercury” (mmHg). High blood pressure is usually diagnosed if your resting blood pressure is persistently at, or above, 140/90 mmHg for most adults.
Many people who have been diagnosed with chronic hypertension monitor their blood pressure at home. It should be noted however, that scientific studies show that the average blood pressure is higher when measured by a health professional than when taken at home. There are therefore two normal values of blood pressure depending on whether the blood pressure is measured at home or in the doctor’s office. At home, your blood pressure is considered normal when the average of your measurements is less than 135/85 mmHg. Your blood pressure measured by your doctor or pharmacist is considered normal when it is below 140/90 mmHg. However your blood pressure is measured, it needs to be consistent, and is usually done in the morning before any medication, food or exercise and again at night.
How can I reduce my blood pressure?
In addition to any prescribed medication, there are several lifestyle changes you can make which can help you reduce your blood pressure. The best approach is a combination of multiple lifestyle changes and following your doctor’s advice. As your blood pressure values normalise over time, your doctor may even be able to reduce your medication, but only if you have a healthy lifestyle in place. It should also be noted that following these guidelines before you are diagnosed, can prevent the onset of hypertension in many cases too, and this will significantly lower your cardiovascular risk status as you age.
- Follow your doctor’s advice and stick to any medication regimen you are prescribed.
- Monitor and measure your blood pressure regularly (at home or at the doctor’s clinic).
- Reduce your intake of salt and foods high in fat. Salt consumption is particularly important to monitor as sodium intake is directly linked to blood pressure.
- Lose weight if you are overweight and do your best to maintain a healthy bodyweight.
- Stop smoking and limit alcohol to under 3 units per day.
- Increase your fresh fruit and vegetable consumption and stay hydrated.
- Get regular exercise including both aerobic and resistance exercise.
- Work to reduce or eliminate stress in your daily life.