High blood pressure increases your chance (or risk) for getting heart disease and/or kidney disease, and for having a stroke. It is especially dangerous because it often has no warning signs or symptoms. Regardless of race, age, or gender, anyone can develop high blood pressure. It is estimated that one in every four American adults has high blood pressure.
High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer” because it usually has no noticeable warning signs or symptoms until other serious problems arise. Therefore, many people with high blood pressure do not know that they have it. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. It can lead to hardened or stiffened arteries, which causes a decrease of blood flow to the heart muscle and other parts of the body. Reduced blood to the heart muscle can lead to angina or to a heart attack.
Blood pressure is the force of blood against the artery walls. It is often written or stated as two numbers. The first or top number represents the pressure when the heart contracts. This is called systolic pressure. The second or bottom number represents the pressure when the heart rests between beats. This is called diastolic pressure.
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart failure, a serious condition where the heart cannot pump enough blood for the body’s needs. It is also the major risk factor for stroke, which is the third leading cause of death in the United States. A stroke may be caused by a rupture or blockage of an artery that supplies blood and oxygen to the brain.
In addition, high blood pressure can result in damage to the eyes, including blindness. The blood vessels in the eyes can rupture or burst from high blood pressure leading to impairment of sight.
High blood pressure can also result in kidney disease and kidney failure. The kidneys filter wastes from fluids in the body. High blood pressure can thicken and narrow the blood vessels of the kidneys, resulting in less fluid being filtered and wastes building up in the body. Also, diseases of the kidney can be a cause of high blood pressure.
If you have diabetes, you are at least twice as likely as someone who does not have diabetes to have heart disease or a stroke. People with diabetes also tend to develop heart disease or have strokes at an earlier age than other people. If you are middle-aged and have type 2 diabetes, some studies suggest that your chance of having a heart attack is as high as someone without diabetes who has already had one heart attack.
People with diabetes who have already had one heart attack run an even greater risk of having a second one. In addition, heart attacks in people with diabetes are more serious and more likely to result in death. High blood glucose levels over time can lead to increased deposits of fatty materials on the insides of the blood vessel walls. These deposits may affect blood flow, increasing the chance of clogging and hardening of blood vessels (atherosclerosis).
A stroke results when the blood supply to the brain is suddenly cut off, which can occur when a blood vessel in the brain or neck is blocked or bursts. Brain cells are then deprived of oxygen and die. Most strokes are caused by fatty deposits or blood clots—jelly-like clumps of blood cells—that narrow or block one of the blood vessels in the brain or neck. A blood clot may stay where it formed or can travel within the body. People with diabetes are at increased risk for strokes caused by blood clots. A stroke may also be caused by a bleeding blood vessel in the brain, called an aneurysm, which is a break in a blood vessel that can occur as a result of high blood pressure or a weak spot in a blood vessel wall.
There are several types of medications that are used to treat high blood pressure. Frequently, more than one type will be used. It is important to take these as prescribed. High blood pressure medicines fall into one of these types:
• Diuretics work in the kidney and flush excess water and sodium from the body. They are sometimes called “water pills.”
• Beta–blockers reduce nerve impulses to the heart and blood vessels that make the heart beat slower and with less force.
• Angiotensin–converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors cause the blood vessels to relax. ACE inhibitors prevent the formation of a hormone called angiotensin II, which normally causes the blood vessels to narrow.
• Angiotensin antagonists shield the blood vessels from angiotensin II. As a result, the vessels become wider.
• Calcium channel blockers prevent calcium from entering the muscle cells of the heart and blood vessels. This causes the blood vessels to relax.
• Alpha–blockers reduce nerve impulses to the blood vessels, which allows the blood to pass more easily.
• Alpha–beta–blockers work the same way as alpha-blockers but also slow the heartbeat, as beta–blockers do. As a result, less blood is pumped through the vessels.
• Nervous system inhibitors relax blood vessels by controlling nerve impulses. This causes the blood vessels to become wider.
• Vasodilators directly open the blood vessels by relaxing the muscle in the vessel walls.
High blood pressure (hypertension) can quietly damage your body for years before symptoms develop. Left uncontrolled, you may wind up with a disability, a poor quality of life or even a fatal heart attack. It is important to keep in mind that high blood pressure can be prevented or controlled through lifestyle changes and with medications when needed.
Once high blood pressure develops, it usually lasts a lifetime. You can prevent and control high blood pressure by taking action.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself, and live the best life possible!
This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional.
Glenn Ellis, is a health advocacy communications specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?” and “Information is the Best Medicine.” A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health-related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on health equity and medical ethics.