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The dangers of high blood pressure

Published in Family Medicine, For the Health of It Author: Roxanne Schmiesing,PA-C

The statistics are sobering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly half of all American adults now have high blood pressure, and, of those, only one in four have the condition under control. That means 75% of Americans who currently live with high blood pressure are at an increased risk of dying of heart disease and stroke.

There is some good news. Even though high blood pressure is absolutely out of control in America, we have the power to turn it around. Unlike many health conditions, high blood pressure is something that each of us has the ability to manage or prevent. Small changes can make all the difference…the key is to simply start.

Know your numbers

Blood pressure is defined as the amount of pressure pushing against the walls of your arteries. It's defined by two numbers — systolic pressure (top number) and diastolic pressure (bottom number). The systolic reading measures the amount of pressure in the arteries when your heart beats. The diastolic reading measures the amount of pressure in the arteries when the heart is at rest. Normal blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg. If your readings are consistently higher than 130/80, you have high blood pressure.

Don't wait for symptoms to appear

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is often called "the silent killer" because it rarely shows any symptoms at all. That's why it's so important to check your blood pressure often and see your doctor if you notice any changes. High blood pressure is a condition that develops slowly over time, so those with normal blood pressure can be checked once a year. Those with higher numbers need to monitor more regularly. At-home monitors can be purchased from most pharmacies and big box stores. As an alternative, many of these same stores offer free blood pressure checks at easy-to-use kiosks.

Know the risk factors:

  • Over age 40
  • Have a family history of high blood pressure
  • African American
  • Overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Smoke or use tobacco
  • Drink too much alcohol
  • Don't eat a healthy diet
  • Have sleep apnea
  • Have high cholesterol
  • Have kidney disease, diabetes, or some types of heart disease

Commit to a healthier lifestyle

While high blood pressure may not always be preventable, it's certainly treatable. To help keep your numbers where they should be, your doctor may prescribe a blood pressure medication and will work with you to monitor your condition on an ongoing basis. In addition, you can minimize the risks of heart disease, stroke or kidney disease by making simple lifestyle changes. Don't smoke. Drink less. Exercise more. Make healthier food choices. If these changes seem overwhelming or insurmountable, start slowly, do what you can, and don't give up. It's important to focus on the long term where small changes will add up to big benefits. Also, see if you can convince your spouse or partner to make the commitment with you. Working as a team is often the best path for success.

If you have questions or are concerned about your risks of developing high blood pressure, talk to your doctor or health provider. You can also find more information on the CDC's website at, or the American Heart Association's website at