Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a common chronic condition. Blood pressure is the measure of how forcefully your blood is pushing against your artery walls. The more blood your heart pumps out and the narrower our arteries, the higher your blood pressure. Normal blood pressure should fall at or below 120/80 mmHg. If your blood pressure consistently falls at or above 130/80 mmHg, you have chronic hypertension.
While high blood pressure—even at dangerously high levels—usually doesn’t show any symptoms, it still causes damage to your heart and body. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a risk factor of several major health problems, such as heart attack and stroke.
Here’s what you should know about high blood pressure:
Chronic high blood pressure usually results from a mix of factors. These factors may include:
- family history
- older age
- high levels of salt intake
- poor eating habits
- history of alcoholism or high alcohol intake
- being overweight
- low level of physical activity
It’s a long-standing belief that anxiety and stress can cause chronic high blood pressure. There’s no evidence that this is so, however, anxiety can cause temporary spikes in blood pressure. If you are constantly feeling worried or anxious, the frequent surges of blood pressure can cause the same damage to your body as chronic hypertension. Thus, chronic anxiety may be just as bad for you as long-term hypertension.
Secondary hypertension is a form of high blood pressure caused by an underlying condition. These conditions include:
- Thyroid disease
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Kidney disease
- Adrenal gland tumors
- Congenital defects in the blood vessels
- Certain medications
- Illegal drugs
Your blood pressure directly or indirectly affects nearly every function in your body. Your heart has to work harder to pump your blood, and the pressure against your artery walls can cause considerable damage. Untreated blood pressure can cause:
- Enlarged heart, which may lead to heart failure.
- Aneurysms—small bulges—in the blood vessels. An aneurysm can burst, causing internal bleeding. Depending on the location, a burst aneurysm can be fatal.
- Narrowed blood vessels in the kidney, causing kidney failure.
- Hardening of the arteries, especially in the heart or brain, leading to heart attack or stroke.
- Burst blood vessels in the eyes, which may result in blindness.
The only way to diagnose high blood pressure is with a reading on a blood pressure cuff. If one reading is elevated, your doctor will likely recheck your blood pressure two or three times each at several different times. Your doctor should also check your blood pressure in both arms, and use a well-fitting cuff. In addition to checking your blood pressure at different times of day, your doctor will also review your medical history and current physical condition.
The most common type of high blood pressure in seniors is systolic. This means your diastolic pressure—the second number in the reading—is normal, while the first number is high.
The best way to control your high blood pressure is to make some lifestyle changes. Here are some things your doctor may recommend:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet
- Reduce your salt intake
- Lose weight and/or maintain a healthy weight
- Increase exercise levels
- Limit your alcohol intake
If lifestyle changes are not enough, or if you have other medical conditions such as diabetes or kidney failure, you may need to take blood pressure drugs. There are several different types of medications available to control your blood pressure. The first choice is often a diuretic, sometimes called a water pill. It helps your body eliminate sodium and water, which in turn reduces blood volume.
Other drugs incle ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, and others. If you or your loved one need blood pressure medication, make sure you understand the side effects of a proposed medicine and how it will interact with your current drug regimen.