High blood pressure, or hypertension, afflicts at least 75 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s a condition that can have widespread effects on the body, and as of 2013, costs the nation $52 billion per year in healthcare and workforce costs.
What causes high blood pressure, and why is it so prevalent in the United States?
Blood Pressure Explained
Blood pressure is a measure of how strongly your blood is pumping through your body. It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) using two numbers:
Systolic: the amount of pressure put on your arteries each time your heart beats. In a blood pressure reading, this is the top number. It should be between 90-120.
Diastolic: the amount of pressure on your arteries when your heart rests between beats. This is the bottom number in a blood pressure reading. It should be between 60-80.
If either one of these numbers is above the upper threshold, you have high blood pressure (hypertension).
The Dangers of High Blood Pressure
Left untreated, high blood pressure can quietly wreak havoc on a body over time, and lead to life-threatening complications. This is why it is often referred to as a “silent killer” — the warning signs often won’t show up until it is too late.
If your blood pressure is too high, that means your heart is working in overdrive, your blood vessels are stressed, and consequently your entire body is affected.
High blood pressure is a risk factor for a number of conditions, most notoriously, heart attacks and strokes. However, it can also cause a range of other issues, from kidney disease to erectile dysfunction to vision problems, that can range in severity.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
There are a few risk factors for high blood pressure. Some can be controlled, others can’t.
When you’re in a stressful situation, your body releases adrenaline. This hormone increases your heart rate and constricts your blood vessels, causing your blood pressure to rise.
Your body is designed to return to normal after the stressful stimulus is gone. The occasional stressful situation will not cause long-term hypertension. However, repeated stress episodes will indeed damage your heart and blood vessels in the same way. If your everyday life is full of stressful situations, your body is constantly “under attack” and this chronic stress may contribute to high blood pressure.
More innocuously, stress plays a role in high blood pressure simply because of the way people respond to it. Constantly turning to smoking, alcohol, or unhealthy comfort foods as a way to cope with stress is a guaranteed ticket to high blood pressure.
A diet high in unhealthy fats is a top cause of high blood pressure. Saturated fats raise the level of cholesterol in your bloodstream. This cholesterol builds up on the artery walls and causes the arteries to narrow and harden, making it that much harder for blood to get through.
A diet high in sodium is also thought to lead to high blood pressure. Too much sodium in the bloodstream can damage the inner lining and function of arteries. Statistically, 90% of Americans are eating more salt than they should.
Foods that can contribute to high blood pressure are:
- Fried foods
- Butter and margarine
- Whole milk dairy products
- Processed meats (bacon, lunch meats, sausage)
- Canned foods (soups, tomato sauce, veggies)
- Condiments (ketchup, salad dressing)
- Snack foods (potato chips, pretzels)
- Restaurant meals
Eating these types of foods can also lead to weight gain, itself a leading cause of high blood pressure.
Excess weight increases the strain on the body. People that are overweight require more blood to be pumped through the body and with greater force to reach all of the fat tissue. This requires more work on the heart and puts more pressure on the blood vessels.
Lifestyle, environment, and genes all play a part in obesity. Which leads us to another factor in high blood pressure: your genetics.
Unfortunately, your genes are out of your control, but they remain a risk factor for high blood pressure.
Having a family history of high blood pressure means you have a higher risk of developing it.
African-Americans are also at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure. Whether this is due to environment or genetics is still unknown (though likely a combination of the two). The fact remains that 75% of black Americans are diagnosed with high blood pressure by the time they are 55, compared to 55% of white men and 40% of white women. After age 65, black women are seen to have the highest incidence of high blood pressure.
With all that we know about high blood pressure, and the sheer magnitude of people affected by it, the big question is: can we fix it?
Can High Blood Pressure be Cured?
In general, high blood pressure can’t be “cured”, however, it can be managed, or controlled. The best treatment for high blood pressure is to make positive changes in your lifestyle, and encouraging your family to do the same.
Lifestyle changes will help control high blood pressure:
- Losing weight
- Eating a healthful diet
- Quitting smoking
- Managing stress
The other option for treatment is medication. Medication may be used to manage high blood pressure in cases that are more severe. Many people will need to take medication for the rest of their lives.
Know Your Numbers
If you haven’t had your blood pressure checked in a while, it’s time to head in to a doctor. Since the symptoms of high blood pressure aren’t obvious, the only way to know for sure is to have it measured and keep track of it consistently.
Visit a local urgent care clinic for a checkup. In Hampton Roads, In and Out Express Care has four convenient urgent care locations in Virginia Beach, Hampton, Chesapeake, and Newport News. Come in and see us today. We want to make sure your heart is in tip-top shape!