High Blood Pressure - Causes, Symptoms & Control

What Is High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure is a condition in which there is tension, or high pressure, in the arteries.  Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is a state in which the systolic pressure repeatedly exceeds 140 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) with the diastolic pressure over 90.  The blood pressure reading shows the systolic pressure number on top and the diastolic pressure number on the bottom (i.e. 140/90). 

The systolic pressure is equal to the pressure in the arteries when blood is being pumped forward into them as the heart contracts.  The diastolic blood pressure is the amount of pressure in the arteries when the heart relaxes after each contraction.

An increase in either the systolic blood pressure or the diastolic pressure or both may be indicative of possible health problems.  Untreated, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), kidney failure, damage to the eyes, and/or stroke. 

Causes of High Blood Pressure
Primary high blood pressure (also known as essential hypertension) is far more prevalent than secondary hypertension.  Essential hypertension makes up about 95% of the cases of high blood pressure, affecting around 72 million Americans.  The exact cause of primary high blood pressure is often difficult to pinpoint.  In fact, its cause is generally related to several factors combined. 

Possible factors that may lead to primary high blood pressure are:

  • Genetic/hereditary factors – The exact gene responsible for causing high blood pressure has not yet been identified.  However, high blood pressure seems to be more prevalent among certain groups, including African Americans, than others.
  • Excessive salt consumption
  • Obesity
  • Aging
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking or being exposed regularly to secondhand cigarette smoke
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Taking oral contraceptives
  • Frequent consumption of alcoholic beverages

Symptoms of High Blood Pressure
Oftentimes, there are no noticeable symptoms of high blood pressure until it has reached the stage of causing serious complications, such as heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure.  Premature death can be a fatal consequence of untreated high blood pressure.  Thus, hypertension has been labeled “the silent killer.”  This is why it is so important to have routine checkups and periodic blood pressure screenings.  If there IS a problem with your blood pressure, it can be detected early through regular exams.

Occasionally, uncomplicated cases of high blood pressure will produce symptoms such as headache, dizziness, blurred vision, and shortness of breath.  Some people may decide to seek medical care when these symptoms appear.  They may also be encouraged to take their medications as prescribed.  On the other hand, these symptoms may go ignored or may not even appear until more serious complications arise.     

Tips to Lower High Blood Pressure
In addition to taking prescribed medications to lower high blood pressure, there are other steps which can be taken to keep blood pressure under control.  Making positive lifestyle changes can often reduce one’s blood pressure, as well. 

What are some steps you can take to lower your high blood pressure?

  1. Change your diet.  Eat balanced, nutritious meals that are low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
  2. Give up smoking.  Smoking cigarettes puts you at high risk for a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, emphysema, and cancer.  According to the American Lung Association, more than 400,000 Americans die each year as the result of smoking-related illnesses. 
  3. Avoid excessive drinking.  Drinking in moderation does not seem to pose a threat to the health of one’s heart.  However, when you consume more than three alcoholic drinks per day, you are putting yourself at risk of developing high blood pressure.  Studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption inhibits the flow of blood to and from the heart, causing the blood pressure to elevate.  The alcohol also pushes nutrient-rich blood away from the heart as it flows through the bloodstream.
  4. Exercise.  Obesity and sedentary lifestyles are big contributors to high blood pressure.  By increasing the amount of physical activity you get each day, you can lower your blood pressure.

Benefits of Exercising to Control High Blood Pressure
According to Elijah Saunders, M.D., cardiologist and hypertension expert from the University of Maryland, “a great way to lower your blood pressure and combat the corrosive effects of plaque buildup is to exercise.  Studies have shown that sedentary lifestyles tend to elevate blood pressure, while regular exercise can reduce it.”

Exercise stimulates the production of a substance called “nitric oxide.”  Nitric oxide works to keep our blood vessels open, allowing the blood to flow more efficiently as the heart pumps harder during physical exertion.  Better blood flow means lower blood pressure.  The production of nitric oxide also slows down or prevents arteriosclerosis.

Regular exercise also strengthens the heart.  A stronger heart is able to pump more blood with less effort.  A more effective heart results in lower blood pressure. 

Exercise leads to weight loss and weight maintenance.  Obesity is one of the leading causes of high blood pressure.  In fact, obesity increases the cardiac output and blood volume, as well as arterial resistance.  Most obese people lead sedentary lifestyles.  By adopting a more active lifestyle, excess pounds can be shed, leading to a lower body mass.  In turn, the heart will not have to work as hard to supply blood throughout the body, and the blood pressure can be significantly reduced.

Any exercise is better than none.  Even taking the stairs instead of the elevator or pushing that vacuum cleaner around your house produces some benefits.  For optimum results, however, it is best to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily.  Walking on a treadmill, dancing, bicycling, and using an elliptical trainer are good examples of aerobic exercise.

Note: Before beginning any exercise program, especially if you are obese or have other health problems, it is recommended that you consult your physician.

Written by Cyndi Waters, Fitness Writer  

American Heart Association
American Lung Association

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