There’s a pretty good reason that you always get your blood pressure checked whenever you visit a medical office — high blood pressure is incredibly prevalent and quietly dangerous, so much so that it sometimes goes by a different name: the “silent killer.”
According to the American Heart Association, high blood pressure affects nearly half of the adults in America, and because symptoms don’t always show, many people may not realize they have it until it’s too late.
If left unchecked, chronic high blood pressure can lead to serious and debilitating health conditions like heart disease. And yet, it rarely shows symptoms of its own, so it can silently wreak havoc on your heart health without ever making its presence known if you aren’t looking out for it.
So what exactly is high blood pressure, and what can cause someone to develop it?
What is high blood pressure?
To understand high blood pressure, you should first start with a basic understanding of the relationship between your heart, blood flow, and body. Blood is circulated via your blood vessels and pumped by your heart, carrying oxygen and other essential nutrients throughout your body.
Your blood pressure is how much force your blood puts on your blood vessels as it circulates.
There are two numbers to look out for: systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Your systolic blood pressure is the amount of pressure that your blood puts on your arteries as it circulates, while your diastolic blood pressure is the amount of pressure between beats as your heart muscle “relaxes.” This is why your blood pressure readings have two numbers: your systolic blood pressure comes first, followed by a slash, then your diastolic blood pressure reading.
According to the American College of Cardiology, normal blood pressure is defined as 120/80 mm Hg or below. Anything higher than this reading, of course, would indicate elevated or high blood pressure.
Your body has the means to control and regulate your blood pressure. For example, your blood pressure naturally increases as you exercise and your heart works harder to get blood and oxygen to all those working muscles, but it lowers back down again as you cool down and catch your breath.
This is a normal body function, but certain factors can lead to consistently high blood pressure. Chronically high blood pressure is known as hypertension.
Why high blood pressure is so serious
It’s no coincidence that both high blood pressure and chronic diseases are so prevalent. Both of these conditions are intricately linked since your blood circulation plays a huge role in transporting nutrients to every organ in your body.
In fact, hypertension is the most common preventable risk factor for cardiovascular disease and can be a huge predictor of your overall health. Because uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to damaged arteries and an overworking heart as it struggles to pump blood throughout your entire body, chronically high blood pressure can lead to a host of serious health issues, including but not limited to:
- Heart attacks
What causes high blood pressure?
Several different factors can lead to high blood pressure, with genetics and lifestyle factors being key causes. Many times, single factors can’t be pinpointed.
Some people are genetically predisposed to having high blood pressure. For example, if hypertension runs in your family, then you are more likely to develop it.
Aging is also a major contributing factor to elevated blood pressure readings. As you grow older, your arteries start to “stiffen” and lose elasticity, so you require more pressure to move blood through them.
There are also certain lifestyle choices that can contribute to hypertension. Some controllable factors that lead to high blood pressure can include a high salt intake, drinking alcohol, and physical inactivity. Being overweight and taking certain medications can also contribute.
Pharmaceutical treatment options are available to treat high blood pressure, but many people prefer to go with the route of prevention and natural treatment to avoid potential undesirable side-effects.
Ways to prevent high blood pressure
You can’t change your genetics or stop yourself from growing older, but you can make lifestyle choices that can minimize your risk of developing high blood pressure.
Watching your weight
Maintaining healthy body weight is one of the most proactive ways that you can maintain healthy blood pressure, with studies showing that a decrease in body weight directly correlates with a decrease in blood pressure. Since being overweight can increase your risk of chronic high blood pressure, bringing your weight down can both prevent hypertension from developing and work as part of a treatment to control existing hypertension.
Don’t be fooled by “lose weight quick” schemes if you’re looking to get to a healthy body weight. The healthiest and most maintainable way to manage your weight is to implement healthy lifestyle changes, including:
- Eating for a caloric deficit: At its core, weight loss is about being at a caloric deficit (in other words, burning more calories than you consume) so that you don’t store the extra calories as fat. Track calories daily to ensure you are eating to meet your goals.
- Increasing activity: You “burn” a certain amount of calories every day simply by existing, but the more you move, the more you burn! Aim for quality movement every single day, and incorporate higher-intensity exercises several days of the week.
- Aiming for gradual lifestyle changes instead of “crash dieting:” While it may be tempting to hop on to the latest fad diet, losing weight healthily and maintaining it for a lifetime means turning bad habits around. Skip the “quick fixes” and focus on gradual but maintainable good habits instead.
Reducing your salt intake
Excessive salt consumption has also been linked to high blood pressure since sodium can cause water retention. Several studies have shown that reductions in salt intake can lead to reductions in blood pressure.
Suggestions to cut excess sodium:
- Pass on the salt shaker. Resist the urge to add more salt as you’re eating.
- Season your food with herbs, spices, and salt substitutes instead. These additions will add flavor and zing to your foods without the extra sodium.
- Read nutrition labels. Processed foods like sauces and dressings can have a surprising amount of hidden salt, so be on the lookout.
Increasing your consumptions of fruits and veggies
Besides salt itself, an overall healthy diet can also be key for preventing high blood pressure. Fruits and veggies provide essential nutrients like potassium that can directly combat the effect of sodium on your blood pressure, with studies proving that an increased intake can help improve high blood pressure.
The importance of a balanced diet can’t be understated in the quest to prevent chronic disease and conditions like hypertension. In fact, the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet was specifically developed to combat hypertension and is rich in fruits, veggies, and other healthy components of a balanced meal plan while also helping to reduce sodium intake.
As you plan your daily meals, you should:
- Incorporate plenty of colorful veggies. The more diversified your veggie intake is, the wider variety of nutrients you’ll get from your diet. Aim to add plenty of colorful veggies every day.
- Use potassium-rich fruits and veggies. Some examples include bananas, spinach, oranges, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes.
Drinking less alcohol
If you’ve been looking for yet another reason to cut back on drinking, here’s one: drinking alcohol has been shown to increase your blood pressure. Excessive drinking can cause inflammation that directly affects your blood pressure readings.
The best prevention for alcohol-induced hypertension is to avoid alcoholic drinks completely. However, if you do drink, moderation is key. Limit yourself to just 1-2 drinks per day.
Consistently incorporating aerobic physical activity can greatly improve your heart health and therefore help to prevent high blood pressure. Cardiovascular activities can have an anti-inflammatory effect on your sympathetic nervous system, which can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of hypertension.
Ideas for increasing your activity:
- Watch your step(s). 10,000 steps per day is often set as the benchmark for movement. Track your steps with a pedometer, fitness tracker, or fitness app, and set reminders for yourself to get up and walk around every couple of hours, especially if you live a more sedentary lifestyle.
- Find physical activities that you love to do. If the thought of running on a treadmill leaves you dreading exercise or viewing it as a chore, it likely won’t be sustainable. Look for fun activities that you actually enjoy—get out on a kayak, hike your local trails, join a fitness class, or whatever floats your boat!
Being proactive and keeping track of your blood pressure
Because high blood pressure on its own does not always have any obvious and recognizable symptoms, you should check in with a healthcare provider and get regular blood pressure readings.
This is especially important if you are at increased risk of developing high blood pressure:
- Aging: Your risk for developing high blood pressure increases as you age, so make sure to go to your yearly physicals to stay proactive about your heart health.
- Genetics: If high blood pressure runs in your family, you are more likely to be at risk for it.
Don’t skip your annual doctor’s visits if you are more at risk! You probably won’t feel any physical impacts of hypertension until it leads to other chronic illnesses.
Chronically high blood pressure is a very common issue that can have serious consequences on your health if left unchecked. While it can be difficult to pinpoint single causes, establishing healthy habits and dietary changes can help minimize your risk of developing this condition.
The most important thing you can do to prevent high blood pressure is to know your risk so you can take action!
Erica Digap is a freelance writer specializing in nutrition science, fitness, and health. After receiving her BSc in Clinical Nutrition and working in the corporate diet industry, she decided to set forth and use her experience to inspire readers to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes, one healthy meal and workout at a time.