Hypertension is the medical term for (long term) high blood pressure. Hypertension is often referred to as the silent killer because symptoms often go unnoticed and can be lethal if left untreated.
Blood pressure is a measure of the pressure blood exerts against blood vessels such as arteries and veins. Blood vessels can be thought of as a hose and blood can be likened to the water flowing through a hose. When water travels through a hose really quickly, the pressure against the inside of the hose is increased. Similarly when blood moves very quickly through your vessels (such as when you are exercising), blood pressure increases.
The problem with chronic high blood pressure is that it causes damage to the blood vessels. Damage to the lining of blood vessels makes them vulnerable to hardening and plaque formation which decreases the circumference of a vessel. Hardening and plaque formation further contribute to hypertension via basic physics: when volume decreases, pressure increases (think about how fast and how hard water comes out of a hose when you partially block the opening with your thumb). This vicious cycle continues and puts individuals at risk for cardiovascular disease. Constantly pumping blood at such a high pressure is taxing and can lead to heart failure and/or cause plaques in the blood vessels to break off and get lodged in an artery in the heart (heart attack), brain (stroke) or leg (peripheral thrombosis).
Since individuals often can’t feel hypertension, they seldom know they are at risk for such cardiac events. As a result it is important to regularly check blood pressure and know if you are at risk for hypertension.
Some Risk Factor Include:
- Age. Age is the biggest predictor of hypertension with older individuals at a higher risk.
- Family history
- African ancestry
- High alcohol consumption
- High salt intake
- High levels of stress
- Type 2 diabetes
Fortunately, once hypertension is diagnosed it can be treated with lifestyle changes and medications.
First and foremost, make an attempt to quit smoking if you are a current smoker.
Diet changes such as reductions in salt intake may improve blood pressure and reductions in fat intake may also protect against cardiovascular disease.
Moderate intensity exercise (e.g. walking for 30 minutes/day) has been shown to lower blood pressure for up to 24 hours. As a result individuals with hypertension may benefit from engaging in physical activity at the same time every day (e.g. go for a walk every evening at 7pm). Exercise has also been shown to improve cardiovascular risk independent of any weight loss (i.e. you don’t need to lose weight in order to reap the benefits of exercise). Always speak with a doctor before starting an exercise plan.
Medications may also be prescribed by your doctor to lower blood pressure. It is important to take medications as prescribed.