THE SILENT KILLER
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a condition where the force of blood against the artery walls is abnormally high (over 130/80 mmHg). Over time, high blood pressure may contribute to various health complications such as heart disease.
There are two types of hypertension: primary, or essential, hypertension and secondary hypertension. Primary hypertension has no identifiable cause, while secondary hypertension can be attributed to an underlying condition such as chronic drug use or renal failure.
Most people with high blood pressure experience no symptoms and usually have no obvious external indicators unless during a hypertensive crisis.
A hypertensive crisis is a severe and dangerous increase in blood pressure that may lead to stroke. In cases of hypertensive crisis, intracranial pressure may increase as a result of blood pressure suddenly spiking and lead to symptoms such as headaches and nausea. The high pressure exerted on the blood vessels during a hypertensive crisis may also cause a ruptured aorta, which may display symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and faintness.
However, because hypertension itself is often symptomless, it is sometimes called a “silent killer”.
What Your Blood Pressure Levels Mean:
Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers: the systolic blood pressure and the diastolic blood pressure.
Systolic blood pressure is the upper number and indicates how much pressure is being exerted on the blood against the arteries during a heartbeat. Diastolic blood pressure is the lower number and indicates how much pressure is being exerted by the blood against the arteries while the heart is resting in between beats.
The ideal blood pressure varies as a person ages, but it is normally under 120/80 mmHg.
Statistics and Demographics:
About 32% of American adults have high blood pressure, and about 33% of American adults have prehypertension (higher than average blood pressure that is not yet in the hypertensive range). Men and women are equally likely to have high blood pressure.
The prevalence of high blood pressure is consistently higher in low to middle class countries than in high income countries.
Why It’s Important:
Chances are, you know someone with hypertension. It’s incredibly prevalent.
Though someone with hypertension may not initially display any symptoms, over time high blood pressure can lead to many other potentially fatal cardiovascular diseases. The rapid growth and development of several countries also means a fundamental shift in lifestyle choices, several of which can and often do contribute to the development of hypertension.
Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, while heart disease and stroke are two of the most common causes of death in the United States.
Possible Hypertension Prevention:
Hypertension has genetic (and therefore unpreventable) risk factors, such as a family history of high blood pressure, sex, and race.
However, there are also several lifestyle risk factors that can contribute to hypertension which can be managed and changed. These include:
- Lack of physical activity
- Unhealthy diet, particularly one high in sodium
- Long-term alcohol or drug abuse
- Chronic high levels of stress
- Smoking and tobacco use
The DASH Diet:
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet, or DASH diet, is a diet promoted by the United States NIH to help control and prevent hypertension. The DASH diet aims to:
- Incorporate more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy items, whole-grain foods, fish, poultry, and nuts
- Limit sodium, sugar, and red meats
- Reduce saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fat intake
On Reducing Sodium Intake:
We need sodium. It’s an essential mineral that regulates fluid levels in our bodies and is a vital part of muscle function. And, it tastes great! However, as with all things, sodium is best in moderation. In excess, sodium causes water retention, which in turn causes a raised blood pressure from the fluid accumulation.
Unfortunately, nowadays sodium is heavily present in many of the foods we eat every day, particularly processed foods. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2300 mg of sodium a day and an ideal limit of 1500 mg of sodium daily. However, the average American daily sodium intake is 3400 mg—over twice that of the ideal limit. Even foods we might typically associate with being healthy, such as vegetables, can sometimes have a surprising (and alarming) amount of sodium.