Did you know that high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), not heart attack or stroke, is the most common cardiovascular disease? And that if left untreated, it can lead to serious diseases including stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, eye problems…even death? In the U.S. alone, more than 30% of American adults have high blood pressure.
As an internist, I see a lot of patients with high blood pressure—some who know they have it, but even more worrisome, some who don’t. That’s one of the most dangerous aspects of this condition: nearly one-third of people who have high blood pressure don’t know it. The only way to know if your blood pressure is high is through regular checkups. This is especially important if you have a close relative who has high blood pressure.
To help you know if you have high blood pressure, here are the most common symptoms to look out for:
If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. You could be having a hypertensive crisis that could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
- Severe headache
- Fatigue or confusion
- Vision problems
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Irregular heartbeat
- Blood in your urine
- Pounding in your chest, neck or ears
High blood pressure explained
Blood pressure refers to the force of blood pushing against artery walls as it flows throughout your body. Like air in a tire or water in a hose, blood fills arteries to a certain capacity. Just as too much air pressure can damage a tire or too much water pushing through a garden hose can damage the hose, high blood pressure can threaten healthy arteries and lead to life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
Your exact blood pressure is determined both by the amount of blood your heart pumps and the amount of resistance to blood flow in your arteries. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.
You can have high blood pressure for years without any symptoms, but fortunately, once you know you have it, you can work with your doctor to control it.
Risk factors for high blood pressure
High blood pressure has many risk factors, including:
- Age. The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age. Men are more likely to develop high blood pressure around age 45, while women are more likely to develop it after age 65.
- Race. High blood pressure is particularly common among African Americans, often developing at an earlier age than in Caucasians. Serious complications, such as stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, also are more common in African Americans.
- Family history. High blood pressure tends to run in families.
- Being overweight or obese. The more you weigh, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood circulated through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls.
- Not being physically active. People who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction and the stronger the force on your arteries. Lack of physical activity also increases the likelihood of being overweight.
- Using tobacco. Not only does smoking or chewing tobacco immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure. Note: Secondhand smoke also can increase your blood pressure.
- Too much salt (sodium) in your diet. Too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.
- Too little potassium in your diet. Potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. If you don’t get enough potassium, you can accumulate too much sodium in your blood.
- Drinking too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than 2 drinks a day for men and more than 1 drink a day for women may affect your blood pressure.
- High levels of stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure. But if you try to counteract stress by eating more, smoking or drinking, you may only increase your risk of high blood pressure.
- Chronic conditions. Certain chronic conditions also may increase your risk of high blood pressure, such as kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea.
- Being pregnant. Sometimes pregnancy contributes to high blood pressure.
What you can do to lower your blood pressure
If you can successfully control your blood pressure with a healthy lifestyle, you can avoid, delay or reduce the need for medication. Here are 10 lifestyle changes you can make to lower your blood pressure and keep it down.
1. Lose extra pounds and watch your waistline
Weight loss is one of the most effective lifestyle changes for controlling blood pressure. Losing just 10 pounds can help reduce your blood pressure. But as well as shedding pounds, you also need to keep an eye on your waistline. Carrying too much weight around your waist can put you at greater risk of high blood pressure.
- Men are at risk if their waist measurement is greater than 40 inches
- Women are at risk if their waist measurement is greater than 35 inches
2. Exercise regularly
Regular physical activity—at least 30 minutes several days a week—can lower your blood pressure significantly. It’s important to be consistent because if you stop exercising, your blood pressure can rise again.
3. Eat a healthy diet
Eating a diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products and low in saturated fat and cholesterol can lower your blood pressure by up to 14 mm Hg.
4. Reduce sodium in your diet
Even a small reduction in the sodium in your diet can reduce blood pressure by 2 to 8 mm Hg. To decrease sodium in your diet, I recommend these tips:
- Read food labels. When possible, choose low-sodium alternatives of the foods and beverages you normally buy.
- Eat fewer processed foods. Only a small amount of sodium occurs naturally in foods. Most sodium is added during processing.
- Don’t add salt. Just 1 level teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium. Use herbs or spices to add flavor to your food.
5. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
6. Quit smoking
Each cigarette you smoke increases your blood pressure for many minutes after you finish. The good news: quitting smoking helps your blood pressure return to normal. People who quit smoking, regardless of age, have substantial increases in life expectancy.
7. Cut back on caffeine
Caffeine can raise blood pressure by as much as 10 mm Hg.
8. Reduce your stress
Chronic stress is a major contributor to high blood pressure, particularly if you react to stress by eating unhealthy food, drinking or smoking. Look for healthy ways to relieve stress, such as exercise, yoga, group activities or meditation.
9. Monitor your blood pressure at home and see your doctor regularly
Home monitoring can help you keep up to date with your blood pressure, determine if your lifestyle changes are working, and alert you and your doctor to potential health complications. Blood pressure monitors are widely available without a prescription.
10. Get support
Having supportive family and friends can really help in your efforts to lower or control your blood pressure. If you find you need support beyond your family and friends, consider joining a support group which can put you in touch with others who can give you valuable encouragement and practical tips to cope with your condition.
If you think you may have high blood pressure, or want to get checked, please contact us
If you think you may be at risk of high blood pressure, or have been experiencing symptoms, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health Internal Medicine specialists. We’ll test your blood pressure, diagnose your condition, and together decide on the best treatment plan to keep you as healthy as possible. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Bryan E. Dorf DO, MBA, a board certified Internist with Westchester Health, member of Westchester Health Physician Partners, who focuses on preventative health and specializes in chronic disease management.