98point6 Physician Sarah Simmons, M.D. on What You Need to Know—and What Many Don’t
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a measure of the excess force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as they move blood through the body. Although it is normal for blood pressure to fluctuate throughout the day, prolonged high blood pressure can cause significant health problems, including heart attack and stroke.
“Most people associate hypertension with the most common risk group, middle-aged males,” says Dr. Sarah Simmons. “But the reality is, any of us could be at risk, and because this potentially serious condition often causes no symptoms, it’s important to be informed and get your blood pressure checked periodically.”
BLOOD PRESSURE BASICS
- Blood pressure is given in two numbers. The top number is the pressure in the arteries when the heart is contracting and pushing blood out. The bottom number is the pressure when the heart is relaxing and refilling.
- Normal blood pressure should be less than 120/80.
- Hypertension is diagnosed as blood pressure of 140/90 or higher.
- There are actually two different types of hypertension. “Primary” hypertension—the focus of this piece—is its own medical condition. “Secondary” hypertension is the sign of another illness, such as thyroid disease, alcoholism or sleep apnea. With secondary hypertension, when the underlying condition is treated, blood pressure should go down.
- Hypertension is nicknamed “the silent killer” because most of the time, there are no symptoms. The only sure way to find out if your blood pressure is high is to have it checked.
- Long-term health effects from hypertension can be avoided if you maintain good control.
SHOULD YOU BE CONCERNED?
Some of these risk groups may surprise you. Here’s what Dr. Simmons has to say:
Men 35+: This is the most commonly recognized risk group. But while genetics and hormone differences are fixed, some lifestyle factors can be controlled. For example, men are more often overweight and tend to exercise less. They are also less likely to see their doctor regularly, so blood pressure changes can go undetected.
20s and over: The incidence of younger people in their 20s with high blood pressure is continuing to rise. This is concerning because the damage caused by the higher pressures is starting earlier in life, leading to the earlier development of health complications ranging from heart disease to vision and kidney problems.
Women 65+: Post-menopause, the chance of a woman developing hypertension goes up significantly due to hormonal fluctuations and other related changes; for women in this age group, the risk surpasses men. High blood pressure in older women is the biggest risk factor for cardiovascular disease, so it’s crucial to keep it under good control.
Pregnancy: Pregnancy itself is not a risk for hypertension per se, but new onset hypertension can develop during pregnancy because of the hormone changes and extra stress on the body. This is called gestational hypertension. In addition to impacting the pregnant individual (and possibly leading to a potentially dangerous complication called preeclampsia), the high blood pressure increases the risk for decreased blood flow to the baby, placental damage and premature delivery.
African Americans: This population is nearly 2x more likely to develop hypertension; African Americans are also more likely to develop the condition earlier and for it to be more severe. Cultural and lifestyle factors play a role, but research also shows that genetic factors increase this risk.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Everyone should have their blood pressure checked, regardless of age, at least once a year. If you are high risk, your physician may suggest you check it more frequently.
- If you already do have high blood pressure and you’re thinking about getting pregnant, start a conversation with a physician ideally beforehand. Blood pressure control impacts the health of the baby and some medicines are not safe during pregnancy.
- While some risk factors like family history or gender can’t be changed, there are lifestyle modifications that can have a big impact on lowering blood pressure. Eating foods low in salt and fat, quitting smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation can all help.
- Weight loss has the single biggest effect on improving hypertension—even a 10 lb. loss can make a huge difference.
- If you are struggling to maintain good control, a prescribed medication may be an option. Talk to your doctor or start a visit with a 98point6 physician to consider whether it’s the right choice for you.