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What Is Hypertension and How to Control It

Reviewed by: Dr. Anu Dhillon, D.C.

By Paul Rothbart

What Is Hypertension and How to Control It

You’ve heard that information is power, and that’s true when it comes to your healthcare. Doctors run a number of tests that provide markers that are indicators of your health and risk of certain diseases and conditions. Taking your pulse, and listening to your heart and lungs, are two of the most common. There are various blood tests for blood sugar, cholesterol, and kidney and liver function.

But no physical exam, even the most basic, is complete without checking your blood pressure. This number is a vital marker that can tell a big part of the story of your overall health and wellness.

What Is Hypertension?

Hypertension, high blood pressure, is when your blood pressure numbers are higher than what is considered a healthy range. Blood pressure is expressed in two numbers divided by a slash, called the top number and the bottom number, measured in millimeters of mercury. This is expressed as “top number over bottom number.”

When your heart beats, it pumps blood through your blood vessels. Just like water flowing through a hose, this creates pressure. Too much pressure in your blood flow puts excess stress on your heart and blood vessels.

Any healthcare professional will take your blood pressure during an examination, even dentists before certain procedures. This is part of taking your vitals. You can also purchase a blood pressure machine, called a sphygmomanometer, at a pharmacy. Many drugstores and supermarkets have kiosks where you can check for hypertension. This should be done periodically.

How Do You Interpret Your Blood Pressure Numbers?

Normal blood pressure is 120 over 80 or lower. If the top number is between 120 and 129 and the bottom number is below 80, your blood pressure is elevated. This is not a cause for concern and is typically temporary, caused by being nervous or stressed.

If the top number is between 130 and 139 and the bottom number is between 80 and 89, you have Stage 1 hypertension. This is an indicator that you should take steps to correct it and your doctor will advise you to do so.

When the top number is 140 or higher and the bottom number is 90 or higher, you have Stage 2 hypertension. This needs to be addressed immediately as you are at risk.

The worst situation of all is a hypertensive crisis. This occurs when your blood pressure soars to 180 over 120 or higher. This is a medical emergency that often leads to a heart attack or stroke and requires a trip to the ER.

What Are the Health Risks of Hypertension?

Hypertension is nothing to take lightly. It increases your risk of diseases and health conditions that can negatively impact your quality of life or cause death.

Higher Risk of Heart Attack, Heart Disease, and Stroke

Hypertension causes damage to the walls of arteries, building plaque and causing them to harden. Arteries narrow and reduce blood flow, and clots frequently form. A blood clot can break loose, travel through your arteries to your heart or brain, and block blood flow. This will result in a heart attack or stroke.

Higher Risk of Heart Failure

When your arteries have narrowed, your heart has to work much harder to get blood to flow through them. It can easily be overworked, leading to heart failure.

It Can Cause Kidney Failure

Your kidneys rely on blood flow to flush out toxins from your body and regulate essential functions. Hypertension can damage the arteries in your kidneys, causing them to fail.

It Can Cause Chest Pain

Hypertension can reduce blood flow to the heart and cause angina, or chest pain. This is especially common when involved in physical activity such as walking upstairs or hiking. You may feel pressure in your chest and have difficulty breathing.

Higher Risk of Peripheral Artery Disease

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) happens when the arteries have narrowed so much that the reduced blood flow causes pain, cramping, and fatigue.

Risk of Vision Problems

Your eyes are filled with tiny blood vessels that can easily be damaged by hypertension, causing vision problems that may become permanent. Hypertension can also damage the optic nerve.

Higher Risk of Hypertensive Crisis

Hypertensive crisis is a serious medical condition that requires an immediate trip to the ER. It can lead to a heart attack or stroke, damaging your health permanently, or lead to your death.

Are Certain Groups More at Risk of Hypertension?

Anyone can develop hypertension with poor lifestyle choices. There are, however, certain groups that tend to be more at risk.

  • People who are obese
  • People who drink too much alcohol
  • People who lead a sedentary lifestyle
  • People who eat poorly
  • People who have a history of hypertension in their families
  • People of African-American heritage

If you fall into any of these categories, it is advised that you be hypervigilant about your blood pressure and take steps to reduce your risk of hypertension.

What Can Be Done to Reduce the Risk of Hypertension?

One of the best things you can do to improve and maintain your health is to reduce your risk of hypertension. There are several things you can do to prevent high blood pressure. Many involve lifestyle changes.

Get Regular Exercise

Staying physically active is one of the best things for good overall health and it can drop your blood pressure by 5-8 mm/Hg. Engage in an aerobic activity you enjoy for at least 30 minutes several times per week or daily if possible. Even a brisk walk will do the trick.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Obesity is a major risk factor for hypertension, so it makes sense that losing those extra pounds and keeping them off will reduce your chances of developing it. The size of your waistline plays a role as well. For men, a waist measurement of more than 40 inches can increase risk, and for women, a 35-inch waist can be a problem. These are generalizations, so consult your doctor for a more specific goal.

Eat Well

Your diet is another important factor in reducing your risk of hypertension. The first thing you should do is to monitor your sodium intake; too much of this mineral will raise blood pressure. Check labels carefully, avoid processed foods, and watch how much salt you add to your food. You don’t want to consume more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day; 1,500 is an ideal limit.

Additionally, eating a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods can take up to 11 mm/Hg off your blood pressure. Eating well and a regular exercise routine will also help you lose excess weight.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional drink, and some studies show a little alcohol may have health benefits. Too much causes problems and can contribute to hypertension risk. Limiting alcohol consumption to two drinks per day for men and one for women -- generally because of the weight difference -- can lower your blood pressure by as much as 4 mm/Hg.

Quit Smoking

Smoking is an incredibly unhealthy habit that does nothing positive for your body and can damage many parts of it. It increases the risk of hypertension significantly. Quitting is not easy but it is well worth the effort.

Sleep Well

Consistently good sleep is vital to your health and it can reduce the risk of hypertension. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule, creating a comfortable, dark, and quiet sleep environment, can facilitate good sleep. It’s also advisable to avoid eating, caffeine, and electronic stimulation the last two hours before bed, which can help you get the 8-9 hours of solid sleep you need each night.

Reduce Stress

Excess stress will always raise blood pressure and could lead to hypertension. Eliminating stress completely is not realistic, but there are ways to reduce it and manage it better.

Recognizing the triggers of stress helps to avoid them and prepare to deal with them. Relaxation is important and you should avoid overworking yourself. Yoga and meditation can be very helpful in lowering stress levels.

Careful planning of a day’s tasks and chores can help to avoid the stress that comes with trying to do too much. It’s a good idea to focus only on things you can control. These tips can lower the stress you experience and your risk of hypertension.

Famous People With Hypertension

Hypertension is common and if you have it, you are not alone. According to the entertainment and lifestyle website, Orange, several famous people have had to deal with this health issue.

In the world of music, Toni Braxton and David Cook were diagnosed with hypertension and took steps to control it. Legends Barry White and Whitney Houston’s deaths were both linked to hypertension as a contributing factor.

Actor Michael Clarke Duncan died of a heart attack connected to high blood pressure. Television personality Oprah Winfrey has corrected her formally poor lifestyle habits to get her blood pressure under control.

Curly Howard of the Three Stooges had hypertension and was forced to retire when he suffered a stroke on set. Several years later, a second stroke killed him.

One of the greatest U.S. presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a number of health issues that included hypertension, which contributed to the massive cerebral hemorrhage that caused his death.

Many celebrities have had to deal with hypertension. Emulate the ones who were able to correct it.

Hypertension is a serious health condition that can lead to many diseases and health issues that can be severe and fatal. Everyone should monitor their blood pressure and take steps to lower it if it is above the normal range. It can prolong your life and boost its quality.

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