High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is often described as the “silent killer”. Usually undetected without any symptoms, high blood pressure has the potential to cause serious health issues including heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness or worse. Many people think that high blood pressure is primarily associated with men but 1 in 5 Canadian women aged 45 and almost half of Canadian women over 65 are affected.
Regardless of age, it is important to have your blood pressure checked at least once per year and more frequently with age. Increased pressure forces the heart to work harder tripling the chance of blood vessel damage, stroke or heart attack.
Hypertension is considered a “modifiable risk factor” for heart disease and stroke which means that we can significantly influence blood pressure through our habits and behaviors reducing the risk of future serious medical problems.
What’s Normal Blood Pressure?
Normal adult blood pressure varies around 120 over 80. The first number (systolic) represents the pressure while the heart contracts and blood is pumped forward. The second number (diastolic) represents the pressure after the heart contracts and relaxes. Hypertension is diagnosed when the systolic pressure is chronically over 140 for extended periods or diastolic is over 90.
Types of Hypertension
Most cases of hypertension are classified as “Primary” which typically has several contributing factors such as weight, fitness, diet, age or hereditary factors. Cases of “Secondary” hypertension are related to other issues such as pregnancy, sleep apnea, kidneys problems, thyroid disease and tumors. “Malignant” hypertension is very high blood pressure that comes on quickly at isolated times. The lower (diastolic) reading of Malignant hypertension can rise above 130. Another form of high blood pressure is “White Coat” hypertension which is caused by the anxiety associated with visiting the doctor.
Symptoms of High Blood Presssure
Although mild to moderate hypertension does not usually present symptoms, severe high blood pressure can cause headaches, chest pain, insomnia, shortness of breath, blurry vision, dizziness, nose bleeds, ringing in the ears, anxiety and irritability. Many people marginalize these symptoms and procrastinate instead of visiting the doctor. Occasionally hypertension can be symptom of serious organ failure or a tumor. Even when the symptoms disappear, chances are that the high blood pressure remains. There is no benefit or rational excuses for blood pressure check procrastination.
Causes of Hypertension
George Bernard Shaw said “Youth is wasted on the young.” While age brings patience, wisdom, and experience, it also brings high blood pressure. It’s not age that actually causes high blood pressure; it’s the long term effects of other factors combined with a more sedentary life-style the pushes blood pressure up. Simply put, the older we are the more likely our blood pressure will rise.
Salt (or sodium) intake exceeding 1,500 milligrams per day can contribute to high blood pressure and other problems like cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Salt causes our body to retain water which in turn can slow down kidney function and increase fluid pressures throughout the body. As we become less independent we sometimes spend less time preparing fresh foods and rely more upon canned soups, pre-made meals and processed food. Sometimes convience is accompanied by high sodium.
4. Weight or Obesity
Excess weight causes restricted arteries, thickening of the arteries and belly fat causes pressure on organs; all associated with hypertension. Healthy eating habits and regular exercise are the two best ways to keep weight down and keep blood pressure down too. It’s never too late to improve diet and exercise.
As if we need to be told. Smoking causes arteries to clog restricting blood to the kidneys. Each puff causes arteries to narrow and become constricted. Clogged and narrow pipes cause increased pressure which requires greater effort from the heart to circulate the blood.
6. Sleep Apnea
We’re learning more and more about the importance of good sleep and affects of sleeping disorders. Sleep Apnea is a condition that causes oxygen levels to decrease and blood pressure to rise.
7. Hormonal Conditions
Some hormonal conditions like Cushing’s Syndrome can cause the body to produces higher levels of steroid hormones. Also certain illnesses like kidney disease trigger the adrenal glands to secrete increased cortisol hormone. Whatever the cause, higher hormone levels will translate into higher blood pressure levels.
8. Family History
High blood pressure can run in families. It’s important to know whether our parents or grand-parents were ever diagnosed for the high blood pressure and what impact it had on their life and health. As my doctor said, “you can choose a healthy lifestyle but you can’t pick your family”.
Resources for Toronto and Canada
Living with PH in Toronto
Canadian Hypertension Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
UHN University Health Network – Hypertension Clinic
Pulmonary Hypertension Association of Canada