Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can lead to serious health problems if left untreated. As many as one in three adults – more than six million Australians – has high blood pressure, but many of these people don’t even know they have it. Here are the symptoms and warning signs to look out for, and how to keep your blood pressure in check.
As many as one in three Australian adults suffer with hypertension, or high blood pressure, but did you know that a staggering 50 per cent of them don’t even know they have it?
We’ve all been told that we need to keep our blood pressure from spiralling out of control, but with often no obvious signs or symptoms, hypertension can, in many cases, be left untreated and lead to a number of serious health problems, including heart attack or stroke.
So, how do you know if you’re at risk, and how to keep it under control? Here’s how to spot the early warning signs of hypertension, and some helpful tips to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
What is blood pressure and how does it work?
The heart is a pump that enables blood to flow throughout the body. Your blood is pumped from the heart through the arteries and out to its muscles and organs.
In order for that blood to pump and flow out into the body, it requires pressure.
That pressure is known as ‘blood pressure’ — the pressure of the blood in the arteries as it’s pumped around the body by the heart.
Although it shouldn’t get too high, this pressure doesn’t always stay the same. Blood pressure varies from day to day, even minute to minute. As blood is pumped by the heart around the body, the pressure with which it pushes against the walls of blood vessels (or arteries) changes.
So, blood pressure changes when your body needs it to. It adapts depending on your body’s needs, such as movement and activity, rest, body temperature, posture, breathing, diet, exercise, medicines, sleep, even emotions such as stress and anxiety can cause that pressure to change.
When the heart is squeezing blood into the arteries, the pressure is high. When the heart is relaxed, the pressure is lower.
When it’s too high the heart has to pump much much harder, and the arteries (blood vessels that carry the blood away from the heart) are under a greater deal of strain as they carry the blood to other organs and muscles in your body.
If blood pressure remains consistently too high — this is known as high blood pressure, or hypertension — it affects the blood flow to your organs. Over the years, this can increase your chances of developing a number of health conditions such as heart disease, heart failure, kidney disease, eye disease, erectile dysfunction, and in serious cases of extremely high blood pressure, heart attack or stroke.
This is why it’s so important to take preventive measures early, and keep tabs on your blood pressure to lower your risk.
What is high blood pressure?
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the force of blood pushing through your vessels is consistently too high.
Your blood pressure measurement takes into account how much blood is passing through your blood vessels and the amount of resistance the blood meets while the heart is pumping.
Blood pressure depends on a combination of two factors:
- how forcefully the heart pumps blood around the body.
- how narrowed or relaxed your arteries are.
Hypertension occurs when blood is forced through the arteries at an increased pressure. When there’s too much pressure pumping that blood from the heart, it puts a greater strain on the arteries and on the heart itself. This can cause an artery to rupture or the heart to fail – in the worst case stopping altogether — under the strain.
Narrow blood vessels, or arteries, create more resistance for blood flow. So, the narrower your arteries are, the more resistance there is, and the higher your blood pressure will be.
So what is normal blood pressure?
Blood pressure is measured using two numbers. The measurement is taken from the highest reading and the lowest reading, and recorded as two figures — highest (systolic) over lowest (diastolic).
The larger number (systolic) indicates the pressure in the arteries when your heart beats and pumps out blood.
The lower number (diastolic) is the reading of the pressure in your arteries as the heart relaxes in between the next beat.
Both are measured in units called millimetres of mercury (mmHg). So, for example, it could read 130/80. Blood pressure varies from person to person, so what’s considered healthy will depend on your personal circumstances and your overall health.
The following figures should only be used as a guide:
Your blood pressure can also change throughout the day, and in response to factors such as exercise, temperature, emotions etc. So, if a reading is high, your doctor will most likely measure your blood pressure several times and on separate occasions to confirm the precise measurement.
For the most accurate reading, it’s best to measure blood pressure when you’re relaxed and sitting down. Your doctor will place an inflatable pressure cuff around your upper arm to obtain the pressure measurements.
If your measurements are high, your doctor may recommend that you measure your blood pressure at home using a blood pressure monitor, or with a 24-hour recording monitoring device.
What’s considered high blood pressure?
Generally speaking, if you have a blood pressure reading greater than 140/90 mmHg taken at least 3 times at the same clinic, you’re considered to have high blood pressure, or hypertension.
Readings consistently above these measurements put you at higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke (cardiovascular disease), and developing other health conditions.
If your blood pressure is below this figure, however, you are considered to have a reduced cardiovascular risk.
Current Australian guidelines recommend that if you have persistent raised blood pressure over 160/100 mmHg, but are at low risk of having a stroke or heart attack, you should talk to your doctor or specialist about medication and treatment to lower your blood pressure.
What causes high blood pressure?
For many people, the cause of high blood pressure is unknown. Anyone can suffer from high blood pressure, however, certain medical conditions and lifestyle behaviours can increase your risk significantly. These include:
- lack of exercise
- being obese or overweight
- Diabetes Type 1 or 2
- a family history of high blood pressure
- excessive salt intake
- kidney diseases
- high cholesterol
- high alcohol consumption
- certain medicines, such as steroids
For some, there is an identifiable cause of hypertension, such as narrowing of the arteries to the kidney or some hormonal conditions.
What are the symptoms to look out for?
One of the biggest problems with high blood pressure is that often, it doesn’t display any symptoms. Some people with high blood pressure may experience headaches, dizziness, fatigue or confusion, or in severe cases of hypertension, the sudden effects of disease of the arteries, such as chest pain or stroke.
However, most people feel generally fit and well, which means the condition can frequently go undetected and undiagnosed for months, even years. In fact, a 2020 study found that 50 per cent of Australians with high blood pressure weren't even aware they had it.
That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor and have your blood pressure checked regularly, at every age. Even more so if you have one or more of the above known risk factors.
If you’re 18 or over, the Heart Foundation recommends that you get your blood pressure checked at least every two years. If you’re 45 and over, you should get your blood pressure checked as part of a regular, comprehensive Heart Health Check.
What’s the treatment for high blood pressure?
For people with mild high blood pressure, luckily there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to help to lower your blood pressure. This includes:
- regular exercise
- losing weight (when overweight)
- stopping smoking
- eating a healthy, balanced diet
- reducing salt intake
- limiting alcohol to no more than 2 drinks per day for men, or 1 drink per day for women with high blood pressure
Your doctor may also prescribe medication alongside these lifestyle changes to help blood pressure levels return to normal. These medicines can, however, cause unwanted side effects. Your doctor will usually start you off on a low dose to see how your body responds. If it doesn’t work effectively or you suffer with any uncomfortable side effects, they might prescribe an alternative medication (or a combination of both) until your blood pressure is controlled.
This can take time, and some people may need to be on these medications for life. For others, they might find that making drastic changes to their lifestyle helps considerably, so they may only require medication for a short period of time.
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