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5 Things You Should Know About High Blood Pressure

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Why worry about high blood pressure if you haven’t been diagnosed with it?

“Over time, 90 percent of people in this country develop hypertension,” says Stephen Havas, professor of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. That’s because blood pressure typically creeps up as you age.


1. What Is High Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the force that your blood exerts on the walls of the arteries it flows through, just like water flowing through a garden hose pushes against the hose’s walls.

Your blood pressure consists of two numbers. Systolic—the higher number—is the pressure on blood vessel walls during a heartbeat. Diastolic—the lower number—is the pressure between beats.

When people have high blood pressure—also called hypertension—it’s often because blood vessels are too rigid to expand when the heart pumps.


2. Your Risk Rises Before Your Blood Pressure is “High.”

Doctors diagnose patients with high blood pressure when their systolic pressure reaches 140 or their diastolic pressure hits 90. But rising pressure is a threat to your blood vessels before it crosses either of those lines.

“People don’t realize that blood pressure higher than 120 over 80 is associated with increased risk,” says Havas. “Between ‘normal’ and ‘hypertension’ you have a huge number of heart disease and stroke deaths attributable to excess blood pressure.”

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) calls those in-between blood pressures “prehypertension.” Roughly one out of three American adults have it. Another one out of three have full blown hypertension.

“As blood pressure increases, the damage increases,” says Norm Campbell, professor of medicine, community health sciences, and physiology and pharmacology at the University of Calgary in Canada.


3. Hypertension Harms More Than Just the Blood Vessels.

High blood pressure doesn’t just raise heart attack and stroke risk.

“As blood pressure rises, all of the blood vessels in the body are damaged,” explains Campbell. “And that causes strokes, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney failure, dementia, impotence, and difficulty with walking” due to peripheral artery disease.


4. Don’t Rely on Drugs to Lower Your Pressure.

So what if you get high blood pressure? Can’t you just take a drug to lower it?

“You don’t want to wait until your blood pressure crosses that magic threshold of 140 over 90,” says Havas, “because by that point you’ve already done a fair amount of damage to your heart, vascular system, kidneys, and brain.”

What’s more, only about half of the 75 million Americans with hypertension have their blood pressure under control—that is, below 140 over 90. The other half includes people who aren’t being treated and those who don’t even know they have hypertension.

“Hypertension is a chronic condition that doesn’t make the patient feel anything,” explains Norman Kaplan, professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “If people with, say, rheumatoid arthritis don’t take their medication, they hurt. So they’ll take that medication. But people with hypertension don’t experience anything obvious.” So many stop.


5. You Can Help Keep Your Blood Pressure Low.

Want to lower your blood pressure or keep it from climbing in the first place? This game plan can have a big impact.