All your questions about high blood pressure, answered

 

It's important to know your risk for high blood pressure and check your readings.
It’s important to know your risk for high blood pressure and check your readings.

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Hypertension explained | Symptoms | Causes | Dangers | How to lower blood pressure | Foods and DASH diet | Medication 

About 45% of US adults have high blood pressure — that’s more than 108 million Americans.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the major risk factors for heart disease and stroke, which are two of the leading causes of death in the US.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s considered high blood pressure, the major causes, and how to lower your blood pressure with different treatment methods.

What is hypertension? 

Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure.

As your heart beats, blood flows through your arteries and out to the rest of your body. Blood pressure is a measurement of the force of blood against your artery walls.

If the force is too high, the arteries narrow and your heart works harder, which can lead to health problems over time, some of which can be life threatening.

Blood measure readings are a fraction of two numbers: systolic pressure and diastolic pressure.

Systolic pressure, the top number on the reading, is the amount of pressure in the arteries when your heart muscle contracts. Diastolic pressure is the bottom number, and refers to the blood pressure in between heart beats.

Using these measurements, here’s what doctors consider high blood pressure, or hypertension.

know your blood pressure readings graphic
know your blood pressure readings graphic

Shayanne Gal/Insider

High blood pressure symptoms

High blood pressure doesn’t usually have symptoms. It develops over time, and many people won’t know they have hypertension. In fact, it’s often called the silent killer.

But high blood pressure is easily treatable if you catch it early — it only becomes dangerous when it’s left untreated over a long period of time.

That’s why it’s important to visit the doctor’s office at least once a year. With a routine check-up, your doctor can measure blood pressure, discuss your medical history, and determine if you have hypertension or may be at risk.

On the assumption that you already have high blood pressure, or are at risk, your doctor might ask you to come in for check-ups more frequently, or request you check your blood pressure at home.

If that’s the case, our colleagues at Insider Reviews have compiled a list of the best blood pressure monitors for home use.

What causes high blood pressure?

Medical experts classify high blood pressure as primary or secondary hypertension. Both types of high blood pressure have different causes.

Primary hypertension

Primary hypertension does not have one apparent cause, and may be a result of several risk factors, including family history and lifestyle behaviors, such as:

  • An unhealthy diet, particularly too much sodium and too little potassium
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Chronic stress

It’s estimated that about 90% to 95% of people with high blood pressure have primary hypertension, and this is by far the most common type.

Secondary hypertension

Secondary hypertension is when high blood pressure is caused by a pre-existing health condition, such as:

  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes complications
  • Hormone disorders
  • Thyroid problems
  • Sleep apnea
  • Congenital heart disease, or heart defects present at birth
  • Side effects of medication like pain relievers, birth control pills, or antidepressants

Dangers of high blood pressure

When left untreated, high blood pressure is dangerous and can lead to serious health problems. For example, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke are related conditions.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US. While there are many types, high blood pressure increases your risk for all of them, making it one of the main causes of heart disease.

For example, high blood pressure is one of the major signs of a heart attack. It also contributes to heart failure, as well as coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease.

About 80% of Americans who experience a stroke will also have high blood pressure. In addition, it can also be one of the warning signs before an aneurysm.

How to lower blood pressure 

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to lower blood pressure and effectively reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke.

Many people are able to effectively lower their blood pressure. To do so, it’s important to know your risk factors, stay on top of your blood pressure readings, and most importantly, implement a few key lifestyle changes.

The most commonly recommended lifestyle changes include:

  • Quit smoking. Giving up cigarettes can prevent heart disease, as research has found that it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 39%.
  • Weight loss. Shedding just 10 pounds may lower your systolic blood pressure by as much as 10 to 12 points.
  • Regular exercise. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity every day — such as walking, running, swimming, biking, weight-lifting, or more — any type of exercise that gets your heart pumping.
  • Lower sodium intake. The FDA recommends that people with hypertension consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.

Foods that lower blood pressure 

There are also certain foods that help lower blood pressure, and adopting a healthier diet can make a huge difference.

For example, research has found the DASH diet can lower blood pressure. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and it was developed by the National Institutes of Health in the early 1990s.

To lower blood pressure, the DASH diet limits sodium, sugar, and saturated or trans fats while increasing potassium, calcium, and magnesium. This balance of nutrients is heart-healthy and has been found to significantly reduce blood pressure for those with hypertension.

Overall, the DASH diet focuses on foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and fish — and discourages fast food, packaged items, and processed snacks.

Here’s an example of the foods you can eat to lower blood pressure with the DASH Diet.

what you can eat on the DASH diet
what you can eat on the DASH diet

Shayanne Gal/Insider

In addition, the Mediterranean diet may be able to lower blood pressure, and is also considered one of the healthiest ways to eat.

High blood pressure medication

If lifestyle changes aren’t enough to control high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend medication to better manage high blood pressure.

Some of the most commonly prescribed medications are:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  • Angiotensin receptor blockers (ARB)
  • Beta blockers
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Diuretics

Any medication prescriptions or changes should be made under the supervision of your doctor.