Of all of the problems dominating the modern health landscape, hypertension (also referred to as high blood pressure) might be one of the most challenging opponents. This isn't just because of the many consequences of hypertension - the disease can lead to a myriad of problems impacting the heart, kidneys, brain and even the eyes. What makes high blood pressure such an imposing threat is its stealthy nature. Of all of the 68 million Americans with hypertension, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one fifth are completely unaware of their condition (other estimates put this figure at about one-third of hypertension patients). By paying close attention to some subtle warning signs, patients with undiagnosed hypertension can get the medical attention and treatment they need.
The Dangers of Hypertension
Hypertension can be defined simply as abnormally high blood pressure. Blood pressure refers to the force of blood against the artery walls as it is pumped out of your heart. A healthy blood pressure measurement falls below a reading of 120/80 mmHg (the "mmHg" abbreviation stands for "millimeters of mercury"). People with measurements that fall between 120/80 mmHg and 140/90 mmHg are considered to have pre-hypertension; this means that while they do not yet suffer from hypertension, they are likely to develop the condition in the future. The threshold for hypertension is 140/90 mmHg; having blood pressure readings at this level or higher confirms the presence of hypertension.
Once hypertension develops, it immediately begins straining numerous key body parts. Hypertension forces the heart muscle to work harder to push blood through the arteries, causing the heart muscle itself to thicken. While we usually think of bigger muscles as a good thing, a bigger heart muscle is certainly not a sign of good health. Thicker heart muscles make it much harder for the heart to pump blood; if this burden becomes too much for the heart to bear, it will completely fail. Additionally, hypertension can cause the heart's surrounding arteries to harden, eventually leading to heart attack.
A surge in blood pressure can also weaken blood vessels in the kidneys, the organs tasked with purging waste from the body. If its blood vessels begin to falter, the kidneys themselves could easily follow suit, allowing dangerous toxins to accumulate inside the bloodstream. Should the kidneys fail entirely, a patient will require either a kidney transplant or dialysis, a treatment that involves cleaning the kidneys with the aid of a dialysis machine.
In addition to threatening some of the body's most vital organs, hypertension is the also the leading cause of strokes. As blood is pushed through the vessels at abnormal force, it may rupture weakened blood vessels that pass through the brain. If a vessel does burst, blood will quickly leak inside of the brain, and subsequently cause the patient to suffer a stroke. Hypertension can also heavily damage blood vessels in the eyes, leading to blurred vision or even blindness.
Possible Hypertension Red Flags
As mentioned above, many patients with hypertension are completely unaware of their dangerously high blood pressure. The main reason for this problem is that undiagnosed hypertension patients often display no discernable symptoms. Consequentially, the only surefire way to conclusively determine the presence of hypertension is through regular blood pressure tests. Exactly how often a patient's blood pressure should be checked varies from case to case; if you are concerned about your current blood pressure levels, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Though many people develop hypertension without any obvious warning signs, some patients may experience symptoms that indicate unhealthy blood pressure levels. People in this category often have blood pressure readings that are much higher than 120/80 mmHg. A list of these possible red flags is shown below:
- Strong headache
- Fatigue or confusion
- Problems with vision
- Pain in the chest area
- Difficulty breathing
- Irregular heartbeat
- Blood in the urine
- Pounding in the chest, neck, or ears
Reducing Your Blood Pressure
Doctors usually prescribe various medications to hypertension patients, with the goal of reducing their blood pressure readings to healthy levels. Aside from these medications, people with hypertension (or those at risk of developing hypertension) can reign in their blood pressure through implementing some healthy lifestyle adjustments.
Lose Excess Weight - We're stating the obvious here, but carrying around extra weight is no good for the body, leading to everything from diabetes to cancer. So it shouldn't be surprising that being overweight or obese dramatically increases your risk of hypertension. Likewise, shedding unneeded poundage will likely reduce your blood pressure back to acceptable levels.
Exercise Regularly - You might be tempted to dismiss this piece of advice, especially if you seldom exercise. Many people mistakenly believe that they need to spend hours toiling in the gym to reap the benefits of working out. In reality, just 30 to 60 minutes of daily physical activity can lower your blood pressure by 4 to 9 mmHg.
Strictly Watch Your Sodium Intake - Sodium, a mineral added to foods to boost taste and prevent spoilage, can lead to hypertension if consumed in excessive amounts. Hypertension patients are commonly advised to cut back on their sodium intake, with a cap of 1500 milligrams per day. This same guideline applies to people over age 51, African-Americans and those with diabetes and/or kidney disease. You can consume less sodium by eating fewer processed foods, limiting your consumption of salt and by reading the nutrition labels of products prior to purchasing them.
Drink in Moderation - Unhealthy amounts of drinking not only place a heavier burden on your liver, but can also raise your blood pressure. People under age 65 are best served by consuming no more than two alcoholic drinks per day; people over 65 should stick to one daily drink. 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor and 5 ounces of wine all qualify as one alcoholic drink.
Manage Your Stress Levels - This final tip might be the toughest one of all. Working at a demanding job or dealing with difficult family members can easily cause stress, thereby causing a harmful rise in blood pressure. If you are unable to remove the stress triggers in your life, you might consider practicing deep-breathing exercises, yoga or meditation. A professional therapist might also be useful.