High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is one of the most common health problems in the United States. According to the CDC, almost half of all Americans have high blood pressure. But what is blood pressure, and what can you do to prevent or manage hypertension? The resources below will help you answer these questions.

blood pressure cuff and reader

What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against your artery walls as your heart pumps blood throughout your body. When your heart pumps a lot of blood, or when you have narrow or blocked arteries, your blood pressure will be higher.

It’s normal for your blood pressure to go up and down throughout the day as you have varying levels of physical activity. But if your blood pressure is consistently high even when you are just sitting still, it may be cause for concern. This is because over time, high blood pressure puts you at risk for other things like heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.

There are two types of hypertension:

  • Primary (essential) hypertension develops gradually over many years.
  • Secondary hypertension is caused by an underlying medical condition, or can be caused by certain medications. This type of hypertension can sometimes go away. For more information on causes of secondary hypertension, check out this Mayo Clinic page on high blood pressure.

This short video gives you an introduction to high blood pressure:

Here are some more basic resources on blood pressure:

  • High Blood Pressure: This page from Medline Plus explains blood pressure and links to other useful websites.
  • High Blood Pressure: This page from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute gives you an overview of causes, risk factors, prevention, and more.

How do I know if I have high blood pressure?

The unusual thing about hypertension is that there are rarely symptoms of it. This is why it is sometimes called “the silent killer.” The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to get your blood pressure taken.

Understanding your blood pressure numbers

At any routine doctor’s visit, your provider will usually take your blood pressure by putting a cuff on your arm and pumping it up to increase the pressure. What they are doing here is measuring two levels of pressure:

  • Systolic pressure, or the pressure on your arteries the moment your heart beats. This is the higher pressure, and this number is read first.
  • Diastolic pressure, or the pressure on your arteries between heart beats, when your heart is resting. This pressure is lower, and this number is read second.

If your systolic number is above 130 and your diastolic number is above 80, you may have high blood pressure. This page from the Mayo Clinic will help you decode your blood pressure reading. You can also reference the chart below:

blood pressure chart from American Heart Association

If your blood pressure reading comes back high, don’t panic. For one thing, these numbers are somewhat arbitrary; just in the last few years, the American Heart Association lowered the hypertension threshold from 140/90 to 130/80, meaning that suddenly many more people were considered hypertensive.

Secondly, your blood pressure varies from day to day, depending on your levels of activity and stress. It is worth getting several readings over a longer period of time to find out if you really do have high blood pressure.

What are risk factors for hypertension?

Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that may put you at a higher risk for hypertension. African-Americans, for instance, are more likely to develop high blood pressure than people of other races.

The American Heart Association lists these hereditary risk factors:

  • Family history
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Chronic kidney disease

How can I prevent or manage high blood pressure?

Techniques for preventing and managing high blood pressure look very similar. The main idea is to eat a healthy, low-sodium diet and get lots of exercise. The American Heart Association suggests these tips for lowering your blood pressure:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet that is low in salt
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Get regular physical activity
  • Manage stress
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking
  • Take your medications properly

Eating a healthy diet

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) created a diet specifically to lower blood pressure: the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The basic idea is to give you daily and weekly goals for how many servings you should be eating from each food group.

Here are some more resources from around the web to help you maintain a healthy diet and keep your blood pressure in check:

DASH Diet - picture of food

How is hypertension treated?

Whether or not your doctor prescribes blood pressure medications for you, you should follow all of the lifestyle recommendations for lowering blood pressure listed above.

In addition, your doctor may prescribe one of these types of blood pressure medications:

  • Thiazide diuretics: Reduces sodium and water in your body to help control blood pressure
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, and similar medications: Relaxes and opens up narrowed blood vessels to lower blood pressure.

This guide from the American Heart Association lists possible side effects and other things you should know about taking blood pressure medicines.

This page from the FDA provides a complete list of all the different types of blood pressure medicines and side effects you may feel.

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