You know the drill: roll up your sleeve and get the squeeze at your annual checkup. But many of us don’t understand how blood pressure works–or how dangerous high blood pressure can be. Hypertension affects more than 100 million people in the United States. Experts often call it the “silent killer” because it doesn’t always have easily recognizable symptoms but can cause or worsen a range of life-threatening conditions.
What Do Blood Pressure Readings Mean?
Your blood pressure measures the pressure of your blood against your arteries, which carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Many of us are familiar with fraction-style measurements we get from our primary care provider but don’t always know what it means. The top number is your systolic blood pressure, which measures the force your heart exerts on the walls of your arteries when it beats. The bottom number is your diastolic blood pressure, the force on the artery walls between beats. A normal reading means systolic pressure is below 120 and diastolic pressure is below 80.
Why Do I Have High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure is often related to plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis) which increases the force of your blood against your arteries. The medical community has identified several risk factors for hypertension:
- Obesity and being overweight
- Smoking, vaping, and tobacco use
- Lack of exercise
- Family history
- Age: your risk of high blood pressure increases with age, especially in women
- Race: Black people have a higher risk of high blood pressure at a younger age
- A high-sodium diet causes your body to retain fluid and increases blood pressure
- Stress can raise your blood pressure temporarily
- Pregnancy can cause high blood pressure in some cases
- Chronic conditions, including kidney disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea, can lead to high blood pressure
- Medications– including cough and cold medicines, pain relievers, birth control pills, and other prescription drugs– may contribute to high blood pressure
- Illegal drug use
- Alcohol abuse
What Happens If I Don’t Treat High Blood Pressure?
The ongoing pressure on your arteries from hypertension can damage your blood vessels and organs. Untreated high blood pressure increases your risk of multiple conditions, including:
- Heart attack/heart failure
- Aneurysm (when a blood vessel weakens, bulges, and sometimes ruptures)
- Kidney conditions related to restricted blood flow
- Eye problems or vision loss because of damaged blood vessels in the eyes
- Memory loss or dementia related to blocked arteries and limited blood flow
- Metabolic syndrome and diabetes
How Can I Treat My High Blood Pressure?
Lifestyle changes can help many patients lower their blood pressure. Recommendations include:
- Regular physical activity (the CDC recommends 30 minutes a day, five days a week)
- Avoid or stop smoking and tobacco use
- Eat a healthy diet and keep sodium levels low
- Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption
- Manage stress with exercise, therapy, alternative therapies and other approaches
Your doctor may recommend medication for high blood pressure. Several types of antihypertensive drugs are available, each with a different approach to reducing hypertension. Your doctor can help you decide which type is best for you. The most common medications include:
- ACE inhibitors relax the blood vessels by preventing the production of the hormone angiotensin, which restricts blood vessels.
- Angiotensin 2 receptor blockers (ARBs) block angiotensin differently.
- Beta-blockers help your heart beat less forcefully by blocking adrenaline in your body.
- Diuretics remove excess water and sodium from your body, reducing pressure on the blood vessels.
- Calcium channel blockers can help prevent large vessel stiffness, a common cause of high systolic blood pressure.
How Can My Primary Care Doctor Help With High Blood Pressure?
Routine preventive care and screenings are the best ways to prevent and catch high blood pressure early. Everyone should get their blood pressure checked at least every other year starting at 18, with more frequent readings for patients who have risk factors or family history. When you see your primary care doctor regularly for routine physicals, she can check for early warning signs of hypertension. In many cases, if you catch high blood pressure early, you can stop it in its tracks with lifestyle changes. If you have a high blood pressure diagnosis, it’s essential to see your doctor regularly to help you monitor hypertension, prescribe the best medication for your unique situation and adjust medications as needed.
At PrimaPatient, helping patients with high blood pressure live their best and healthiest lives is a priority. Dr. Ojha focuses on prevention, diagnosis, and treatment with a personal touch, supporting you every step of the way.