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Our Services > Wellness > Health Tips > High Blood Pressure: Know Your Numbers

High Blood Pressure

High Blood Pressure: Know Your Numbers

What are your blood pressure numbers? If you don't have a clue, or if they're not where your doctor would like them to be, it's time to start paying closer attention.

Your blood pressure is the second most important set of numbers you should know (after your significant other's birthday and your anniversary), because few things age your body as quickly or as dramatically as high blood pressure does. Having high numbers makes you part of a real national health epidemic –one that will be responsible for more than 60,000 deaths this year in the United States.

But if you know your numbers and have a goal level, you can start aiming for lower readings and start doing more of the things that will help you and others reach their blood pressure goals.

What is high blood pressure?

Clinically known as hypertension, high blood pressure can cause a host of problems if left untreated. The most common type of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure causes our hearts to work harder by forcing blood to push against the walls of our arteries at an elevated level. Hypertension is the leading cause of strokes and heart attack. It also increases your risk of having heart and kidney failure and hardening of the arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis. Blood pressure typically rises as we get older, but appropriate lifestyle changes, such as eating healthy and exercising, can help you prevent this disease. If you already have high blood pressure, lifestyle changes and certain medications can help prevent or delay other health problems. Have your blood pressure checked when you visit your doctor. Medical professionals consider a reading above 120/80 as high blood pressure for most people.

What causes high blood pressure?

For 90 to 95 percent of people with high blood pressure, there is no easily identifiable cause. It's a known fact, however, that lifestyle—how and what you eat, how active you are, whether you're overweight, or how much stress you're under—all contribute to developing hypertension. If your arteries are subject to elevated levels of cholesterol or if they are diseased (coronary artery disease), they are weakened and can't perform their job very well, and pressure against your artery walls goes up as blood flows through them. When that happens, you are more susceptible to developing life-threatening conditions such as stroke, kidney failure, or type 2 diabetes.\

What risk factors are associated with high blood pressure?

High blood pressure has many risk factors, including:

  • Age. The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age. Through early middle age, high blood pressure is more common in men. Women are more likely to develop high blood pressure after menopause.
  • Race. High blood pressure is particularly common among blacks, often developing at an earlier age than it does in whites. Serious complications, such as stroke and heart attack, also are more common in blacks.
  • Family history. High blood pressure tends to run in families.
  • Being overweight or obese. The more you weigh, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood circulated through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls.
  • Not being physically active. People who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction — and the stronger the force on your arteries. Lack of physical activity also increases the risk of being overweight.
  • Using tobacco. Not only does smoking or chewing tobacco immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure. Secondhand smoke also can increase your blood pressure.
  • Too much salt (sodium) in your diet. Too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.
  • Too little potassium in your diet. Potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. If you don't get enough potassium in your diet or retain enough potassium, you may accumulate too much sodium in your blood.
  • Too little vitamin D in your diet. It's uncertain if having too little vitamin D in your diet can lead to high blood pressure. Vitamin D may affect an enzyme produced by your kidneys that affects your blood pressure.
  • Drinking too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than two drinks a day can raise your blood pressure.
  • Stress. High levels of stress can lead to a temporary, but dramatic, increase in blood pressure. If you try to relax by eating more, using tobacco or drinking alcohol, you may only increase problems with high blood pressure.
  • Certain chronic conditions. Certain chronic conditions also may increase your risk of high blood pressure, including high cholesterol, diabetes, kidney disease and sleep apnea.

Sometimes pregnancy contributes to high blood pressure, as well.

Although high blood pressure is most common in adults, children may be at risk, too. For some children, high blood pressure is caused by problems with the kidneys or heart. But for a growing number of kids, poor lifestyle habits—such as an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise—contribute to high blood pressure.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

One of the most dangerous aspects of high blood pressure is that you may not know that you have it. In fact, nearly one-third of people who have high blood pressure don't know it. The only way to know if your blood pressure is high is through regular checkups. This is especially important if you have a close relative who has high blood pressure.

If your blood pressure is extremely high, there may be certain symptoms to look out for, including:

  • Severe headache
  • Fatigue or confusion
  • Vision problems
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Blood in the urine
  • Pounding in your chest, neck, or ears

If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. You could be having a hypertensive crisis that could lead to a heart attack or stroke. Untreated high blood pressure can lead to serious diseases, including stroke, heart disease, kidney failure and eye problems.

What are the stages of high blood pressure?

At rest under normal circumstances, blood pressure readings between 120-139/80-89 are considered pre-hypertension and worthy of attention even though your doctor wouldn't necessarily be concerned and likely wouldn't be prepared to prescribe medication as a first step. Between 140-159/90-99 is considered Stage 1 hypertension and it is here that your doctor becomes concerned and likely prescribes prescription medication hopefully along with lifestyle modifications including weight loss when applicable. A reading greater than 160/100—referred to as Stage 2—means you have serious and immediate risks including heart attack, stroke, and death.

What's the right way to check my blood pressure?

To get an accurate blood pressure reading, do the following:

  • Take your blood pressure around an hour after you get up, before taking your meds. If it's high, check it again an hour after you take your meds.
  • Avoid doing anything that might raise your BP before you check it (e.g., drinking caffeinated beverages, smoking, exercising and taking meds that raise BP, such as nasal decongestant sprays. Urinate first, as a full bladder also can raise BP.
  • Sit in a comfortable chair, with good back and arm support, and relax for a minute before measuring your BP.
  • After positioning the cuff, rest your arm on a table, bent at the elbow so your upper arm is level with your heart. Avoid moving or talking while taking the reading.

What should I do if I have high blood pressure?

If you have high blood pressure, take these steps:

  • Regularly visit with your doctor.
  • Lose weight if you're overweight.
  • Eat a healthy diet that's low in salt, saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
  • Enjoy regular physical activity.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks a day if you're a man and one drink a day if you're a woman. Check with your doctor about drinking alcohol; it can raise blood pressure.
  • Take medicine as prescribed.
  • Know what your blood pressure should be and try to keep it at that level.