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Hypertension: What You Need to Know

7 min read

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by Dr. Kurt Hong

Doctor measuring the blood pressure of a patient with hypertension

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a condition in which your blood pressure becomes too high (more than the normal range of 120/80 mmHg). It is sometimes called a “silent killer” because it rarely has noticeable symptoms, and those with this condition often don’t know they have it, sometimes even for years. 

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Hypertension is a relatively common medical condition worldwide and is dangerous if left untreated. Untreated hypertension significantly increases the risk for stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, or even death.

According to WHO and CDC reports, hypertension causes around 7.5 million deaths worldwide and was a primary cause of 691,095 deaths in the United States. Nearly half of American adults (48.1%/119.9 million) have high blood pressure today, according to CDC reports. 

This article discusses the basics of hypertension, including its symptoms, causes or risk factors, and treatment options.

What Is Hypertension?

Generally, when the heart pumps the blood, it freely circulates throughout the body to supply your body with nutrients and oxygen via a network of pipes known as blood arteries. Blood pressure is the force or pressure that your blood exerts against the blood vessel wall as it passes through your blood vessels. With every heartbeat, this force increases or decreases.

However, when the pressure or force is consistently too high, it is diagnosed as hypertension. Blood pressure is calculated based on two numbers: systolic and diastolic. 

  • Systolic blood pressure (top number) shows the pressure within your arteries when the heart beats (contracts and pumps out blood). 
  • Diastolic pressure (bottom number) shows the pressure within your arteries when the heart relaxes between the beats. 

The normal blood pressure of a healthy individual is less than 120/80 mmHg. However, if the blood pressure is above 140/90 mmHg or higher, this indicates hypertension. A Blood pressure reading of 120-139/80-89  is called prehypertension.

What Causes Hypertension?

Like a rubber band, healthy blood arteries usually have some flexibility, which enables them to expand and adjust to fluctuations in blood pressure. However, different risk factors reduce this elasticity and increase resistance in the blood vessels, resulting in high blood pressure. 

These risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Genetics (family history of hypertension)
  • An unhealthy diet that includes excessive intake of processed foods. These foods tend to be high in trans fats, saturated fats, and sodium, while providing little potassium.
  • A sedentary lifestyle (physical inactivity)
  • Smoking
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol

High blood pressure (hypertension) can also be related to or caused by other health conditions like kidney disease, diabetes, persistent chronic stress, and certain medications. 

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What Are the Consequences of Hypertension?

Hypertension causes damage to your blood vessels over time and makes them resistant and less elastic. This narrows or blocks the blood vessels, resulting in decreased blood flow to important organs like the heart, kidneys, brain, and eyes.

For instance, a decrease in blood flow to the heart, which pumps blood around the body, can lead to heart failure. Similarly, blockage of blood vessels that supply oxygen and essential nutrients to the brain can cause a stroke. Untreated hypertension can also increase the risk for dementia and cognitive impairment.

What Are the Symptoms of Hypertension?

Hypertension is often called a silent killer because you may not experience any symptoms even if you have high blood pressure. People can have high blood pressure for years without any visible symptoms. However, some people with severe hypertension have reported experiencing chest pain, nausea, headaches, shortness of breath, buzzing in the ears, and dizziness.

How Can You Manage or Treat Hypertension?

There are many lifestyle changes that can help maintain healthy blood pressure and reduce the risk of hypertension. These include:

  • Eating healthy foods, with less processed salty foods and more fruits and vegetables
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly
  • Reducing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking

Doctors may also recommend certain medications to control high blood pressure when lifestyle changes are not enough. 

Certain drugs, such as beta-blockers, alter the heart’s electrical activity to decrease heart rate and intensity, while other treatments target the kidneys to decrease water retention. In addition, some other drugs relax and expand blood arteries either directly or indirectly.

Conclusion

In summary, hypertension is a serious health concern that can lead to life-threatening conditions like stroke, heart failure, or kidney disease. However, a healthy lifestyle can help to manage or control high blood pressure to prevent serious consequences in later life.

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REFERENCES:

  1. High blood pressure symptoms, causes, and problems | Cdc.gov. (2023, August 29). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/about.htm
  2. High blood pressure (hypertension) – Symptoms & causes – Mayo Clinic. (2022, September 15). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/symptoms-causes/syc-20373410
  3. World Health Organization: WHO & World Health Organization: WHO. (2023, March 16). Hypertension. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hypertension#:~:text=Hypertension%20(high%20blood%20pressure)%20is,get%20your%20blood%20pressure%20checked.
  4. Hypertension: What you need to know as you age. (2021, August 8). Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/high-blood-pressure-hypertension/hypertension-what-you-need-to-know-as-you-age
  5. The Facts About High Blood Pressure. (2023, May 25). www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/the-facts-about-high-blood-pressure
  6. Mills, K. T., Stefanescu, A., & He, J. (2020). The global epidemiology of hypertension. Nature Reviews Nephrology, 16(4), 223-237. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41581-019-0244-2

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