High blood pressure affects nearly half of American adults, yet many people don't know what's causing their numbers to creep up. In this in-depth guide, we'll explore the leading causes and risk factors for high blood pressure so you can take steps to get your levels under control.
What is High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, occurs when the long-term force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries is consistently too high.
Blood pressure readings are measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and are given as two numbers - your systolic pressure (the pressure as your heart beats) over your diastolic pressure (the pressure as your heart relaxes between beats).
A normal blood pressure level is less than 120/80 mmHg. Blood pressure higher than 130/80 mmHg is considered hypertension.
Over time, uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to serious health complications like heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure. That's why understanding what causes your blood pressure to rise is so important.
Age is one of the most prominent risk factors for high blood pressure. Blood pressure gradually rises as we get older, due to changes in arteries and other vascular structures.
After age 65, around two-thirds of American adults have high blood pressure. The older you get, the more likely you are to develop elevated readings.
However, high blood pressure is not just a normal part of aging. Making healthy lifestyle modifications can help reduce your risk of hypertension as you get older.
Like many other health conditions, high blood pressure can run in families. Having a parent or close relative with hypertension increases your risk by up to 66%.
Genetics play a role in influencing blood pressure regulation, heart function, and how your body handles sodium. If someone in your immediate biological family has dealt with high BP, be extra vigilant about monitoring your own levels.
Being Overweight or Obese
The more you weigh, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood throughout your body. This extra workload increases the pressure on your artery walls.
People who are overweight or obese are up to 6 times more likely to develop high blood pressure than their leaner counterparts. Excess visceral fat stored around the abdomen also seems to raise BP.
Losing even 10 pounds can help reduce hypertension. Weight loss is especially important if you have other risk factors like diabetes or high cholesterol.
Lack of Physical Activity
Along with contributing to weight gain, inadequate physical activity directly impacts blood pressure control.
Regular workouts help your heart and blood vessels stay flexible and healthy. On the flip side, a sedentary lifestyle is associated with at least a 20% increased risk of hypertension.
Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise like brisk walking. Combining aerobic activity with strength training provides extra blood pressure lowering benefits.
The chemicals in tobacco smoke damage blood vessels and cause them to constrict. This spikes blood pressure temporarily. Smoking also increases inflammation and oxidative stress.
People who smoke are over twice as likely to have hypertension compared to nonsmokers. The more cigarettes smoked per day, the higher the associated BP risk.
Quitting smoking can quickly lower blood pressure. Within 20 minutes of your last cigarette, your BP decreases. After one year smoke-free, your hypertension risk can drop to about half that of a smoker.
Too Much Sodium in Your Diet
Eating too much sodium causes your body to retain extra fluid, increasing the volume of blood and pressure on arteries.
The average American adult consumes over 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, mostly from processed foods. Cutting your sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg daily can help normalize blood pressure.
Some people also seem to be "salt sensitive," meaning sodium impacts their BP more than average. Limiting salt and reading labels to avoid high-sodium foods is key.
Too Much Alcohol
While moderate drinking does not seem to increase hypertension risk, heavier alcohol consumption definitely takes a toll.
Drinking more than 1-2 alcoholic beverages per day elevates blood pressure, especially in men. Alcohol also damages the heart muscle over time, further compounding the issue.
Reducing your alcohol intake can quickly bring your numbers down. Limit consumption to special occasions or cut it out completely if you have trouble drinking in moderation.
Underlying Health Conditions
Sometimes high blood pressure is a side effect of another chronic health problem. Two common culprits are kidney disorders and diabetes.
Chronic kidney disease damages the kidneys' ability to filter fluid and waste from the blood properly. This allows fluid retention, increased blood volume, and hypertension.
In type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance promotes sodium retention, stiffness in blood vessels, and other effects that increase blood pressure. Getting diabetes under control is key for reducing cardiovascular risks.
Treating the underlying condition, whether kidney disease, diabetes, or something else, is important for managing any associated high blood pressure.
Some prescription drugs are unintended secondary causes of hypertension. These include:
Birth control pills - Estrogen increases blood pressure in some women. This effect is most pronounced in older women who smoke.
Corticosteroids - Drugs like prednisone alter electrolyte balance and promote sodium retention, both of which can raise blood pressure.
Decongestants - Nasal decongestants constrict blood vessels, leading to temporary BP spikes.
NSAIDs - Ibuprofen and other NSAID pain relievers reduce kidney function, causing fluid retention.
If you suspect a medication is raising your blood pressure, talk to your doctor about alternative treatment options or ways to mitigate the effects. Don't stop a prescription suddenly without medical supervision.
The Impact of Uncontrolled High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure often develops slowly over many years without obvious symptoms. That's why having regular checkups to monitor your levels is so important.
Uncontrolled hypertension can quietly cause lasting damage to your arteries, heart, brain, eyes, and kidneys without you realizing it.
Potential complications include:
Atherosclerosis - Hardened, narrowed arteries that can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Heart failure - When the weakened heart muscle cannot pump adequate blood.
Dementia - Hypertension impairs blood flow to the brain.
Retinopathy - Damage to the retina of the eyes that can cause vision loss.
Kidney disease and failure - High blood pressure damages the arteries around the kidneys, impairing their ability to function properly.
According to the CDC, high blood pressure was a primary or contributing cause in over 500,000 deaths in the United States in 2018. That's more than 1,000 deaths each day.
Hypertension was also estimated to have cost the U.S. $131 billion in direct healthcare services, medications, and missed days of work in 2018 alone.
By keeping your blood pressure within a healthy range, you can dramatically reduce your risk of associated health complications and premature death.
Monitoring your levels and making proactive lifestyle changes gives you the best chance of lifelong cardiovascular health.
Lifestyle Changes to Help Lower Blood Pressure
The good news is high blood pressure can often be prevented - or at least controlled - with healthy modifications to your daily habits.
Some effective lifestyle changes for lowering BP include:
- Losing extra weight
- Exercising regularly
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Quitting smoking
- Reducing sodium in your diet
- Following the DASH diet, which focuses on fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy
- Trying stress management techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing
- Taking blood pressure medications as directed by your doctor
Modest but consistent adjustments to your exercise patterns, diet, and other behaviors can make a big difference.
Working on one or two changes at a time may be more sustainable than a major overhaul. Over months and years, small steps add up to huge benefits for your blood pressure and overall health.
Know Your Risk Factors
High blood pressure is complicated condition with many contributing factors. Some of these you can't change, like your age or genetics. Others are within your control, like diet and exercise habits.
Knowing the most common causes - like excess weight, inadequate activity, and too much sodium - gives you the power to lower your risk starting today.
Talk to your doctor about getting your blood pressure checked if you have any hypertension risk factors. Together, you can discuss lifestyle changes and medication options to keep your levels in check.
Small daily efforts to eat right, stay active, reduce stress, and take prescribed medications can go a long way in preventing or controlling dangerous hypertension.
Checking Your Blood Pressure
To know if you have high blood pressure, you need to get accurate readings. Here's what to know about properly measuring your blood pressure:
Use the Right Equipment
Blood pressure can be measured using an automated machine or with a manual cuff and stethoscope. Automated machines are easy to use but having a manual cuff as well allows your doctor to listen for any concerning heart sounds.
Take It at the Right Time
Blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day, so the timing of your test matters. Measure when you are relaxed and avoid caffeine, smoking, and exercise beforehand. Many doctors recommend taking it in the morning.
Sit quietly for five minutes before testing. Use the right size cuff on your bare arm, with the cuff at heart level. Keep feet flat and back supported. Relax your arm while taking the reading.
Record Multiple Readings
High blood pressure is usually diagnosed based on 2+ readings taken on separate occasions. Don't panic over one abnormal reading - track your numbers over time.
Monitor at Home
Home monitoring with an automatic arm cuff can give your doctor a better picture by tracking BP during normal daily life. Record your results accurately.
"White coat hypertension," or anxiety about visiting the doctor, can falsely elevate results. Monitoring at home helps reveal your normal BP. Slow breathing can help you stay calm.
Compare Your Arm and Wrist
Wrist cuffs tend to be less accurate. Checking BP in both arms identifies any differences that could indicate underlying health issues.
Accurately measuring blood pressure is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment of hypertension. Monitor under ideal conditions and share the results with your provider.
Closing Thoughts on High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure affects over 100 million Americans, but it doesn't have to be an inevitable part of life. Understanding the risk factors allows you to take preventative action.
Controlling hypertension goes a long way in avoiding heart attack, stroke, dementia, kidney failure, and premature death. By maintaining healthy lifestyle habits and properly treating any underlying causes, you can reduce your risks.
Get your blood pressure evaluated if you have any symptoms or family history of hypertension. Commit to regular at-home monitoring and be proactive about keeping your levels in check.
Your heart health and longevity are worth the effort to uncover any causes of high BP and make positive changes. Small daily improvements to your diet, activity, sleep, and stress management can all add up to better cardiovascular wellbeing.