What does high blood pressure do to your body?
If you’re reasonably healthy and active, you may tune out when you hear the words “high blood pressure.” But even if you feel good, you could be at risk. In the U.S., 1 out of every 3 Americans has high blood pressure, also called hypertension, according to the American Heart Association, and many do not realize it because “the silent killer” can affect your body for years before causing noticeable symptoms.
“It is so important to know your numbers; high blood pressure can lead to catastrophe if not managed,” said Kenneth Hamby, MD, of Novant Health Oceanside Family Medicine. “Heart attack, stroke, aneurysms — they can all come about through the effects of hypertension.”
“If you’re diagnosed with hypertension or prehypertension, there are steps you can take to lower your blood pressure and protect your body from its damaging effects. If your blood pressure is normal, you can make a plan to keep it that way,” said Dr. Hamby.
What is high blood pressure?
What does it do to your body? - Your body uses blood to deliver oxygen to all of your organs. Your heart acts as a pump that pushes oxygenated blood through a complex system of arteries and veins, and each pump exerts a certain amount of force against the walls of those vessels. That pressure is what we call blood pressure.
When you get a blood pressure reading, it is written as a ratio of systolic, the pressure at the moment your heart contracts, over diastolic, the pressure when your heart is resting between beats.
If the pressure on your artery walls is too high, over time they will stretch and weaken, which can lead to ruptures, tears, aneurysms and strokes. Another risk of high blood pressure is blocked arteries — that may seem counterintuitive, but as your body heals tiny tears in your artery walls, it leaves scar tissue. That tissue can act as a net for plaque, cholesterol and blood cells, and can increase your risk of heart attack- and stroke-causing blood clots.
What you should know about the numbers
The AHA defines five stages of blood pressure:
- Normal – Systolic reading less than 120 and diastolic reading less than 80
- Prehypertension – Systolic reading between 120 and 139 or diastolic reading between 80 and 89
- High blood pressure, stage one – Systolic reading between 140 and 159 or diastolic reading between 90 and 99
- High blood pressure, stage two – Systolic reading of 160 or higher, or diastolic reading of 100 or higher
- Hypertensive crisis – Systolic reading of 180 or higher, or diastolic reading higher than 110
Abnormally low blood pressure is also cause for concern and should be evaluated by your doctor.
“Because your blood pressure can change from minute to minute, with different postures, stress or meals, you need to keep track of your blood pressure over time to make sure it is not trending into prehypertension or hypertension,” said Dr. Hamby.
The AHA recommends you get a blood pressure screening at least every two years, starting at age 20. If your numbers are higher than the normal range, you should get screened more often.
Are you at risk?
There are several factors that can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure. Certain groups, such as African Americans and women, have a greater likelihood of developing hypertension. Those with a family history of the disease are more likely to develop it and can pass the risk factor on to their children. Age also increases risk because blood vessels begin to lose their elasticity over time.
“Beyond the hereditary and unavoidable risk factors are several lifestyle choices that can put you at an increased risk,” said Dr. Hamby. “Those include being inactive, eating an unhealthy diet
, consuming too much alcohol or smoking.” Other risk factors include being overweight and not effectively managing stress.
The good news is that, even if you are at an increased risk, you can make changes to help reduce your risk and manage your blood pressure.
Decreasing your risk and managing hypertension
The AHA recommends eight primary ways to control and lower blood pressure:
- Eat a healthier diet
, possibly reducing salt intake
on a regular basis
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Avoid tobacco smoke
- Follow the instructions for any medications you take
- Limit your alcohol intake
- Be aware of hot tub/sauna safety practices
Dr. Hamby says regular monitoring in addition to patient education is one of the big factors in lowering high blood pressure.
“The more you know, the better equipped you are to make the changes your body needs. I see a lot of my patients get excited about their numbers improving, and that spurs even more healthy changes. It’s a really positive cycle,” he said.