Heart disease is a term used to describe several conditions, including coronary artery disease (the most common type of heart disease). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a stunning 600,000 people die from heart disease each year in the United States, making it the number one cause of death for both men and women.
Why do so many people die of heart disease? Primarily, because they don’t see it coming. One of the conditions that leads to heart disease is chronic high blood pressure, and for most people who have it, there are few, if any, symptoms. A huge number of Americans, about one in three, has high blood pressure—that’s about 75 million people.
Blood pressure measures the force of your blood against your artery walls when your heart beats and when it rests. Measuring your blood pressure helps health professionals determine the health of your circulatory system, the strength of your heart muscle and the elasticity of your blood vessels as they carry oxygenated blood to your tissues and organs.
Chronic high blood pressure, also called hypertension, occurs when a person’s blood pressure is consistently too high, putting extra stress on the circulatory system. While “normal” blood pressure varies a bit depending on age, we typically consider normal to be 120 over 80 mm of mercury (mmHg). Hypertension occurs when your blood pressure is consistently higher than 130 over 80 mmHg.
Blood pressure can spike temporarily during exercise or other high-stress situations, but as long as the resting blood pressure returns to normal, it’s usually fine. The true danger comes from prolonged exposure to the force and friction of high blood pressure over time, which damages the inside of the arteries. The damage allows fatty deposits called plaque to form and the plaque narrows the arteries. Narrower arteries cause blood pressure to increase, causing more damage and a dangerous cycle becomes hard to reverse. Ultimately, this can lead to conditions ranging from arrhythmia (irregular heart beats) to heart attack and stroke.
Although it is often hard to know exactly what causes hypertension, there are several risk factors, including being overweight, being older than 60 years old, using large quantities of alcohol and/or tobacco on a regular basis, and having other health conditions like chronic kidney disease (CKD), cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels. CKD is a common culprit because when the kidneys do not filter out fluid, the excess fluid can lead to hypertension.
So what can you do to avoid hypertension? The first line of defense is to know your numbers. Check your blood pressure regularly and if it is high, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider.
Lifestyle choices like not smoking, eating a well-balanced, low-salt diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol and reducing stress can help lower high blood pressure. If that doesn’t work, medication is available. The American Heart Association has a great website that includes information about hypertension, as well as tools and resources to manage it. Visit www.heart.org and type hypertension in the search bar to learn more.
Just be cause you feel good doesn’t mean you can ignore your high blood pressure. People often refer to hypertension as the “silent killer” precisely because there are so few symptoms. If you know your blood pressure is consistently higher than 130 over 80 mmHg, make an appointment with your primary care provider today.
Dr. Douglas is the chief medical officer at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.