High blood pressure (Hypertension) affects about 75 million American adults. Almost 1 in 3 adults is afflicted with it. Fortunately for a majority of people, it’s largely preventable with exercise and diet.
So what is high blood pressure exactly?
What is this ‘silent killer’ that affects so many people? Basically in its simplest form, it’s just the measurement of the pressure on the blood vessel walls.
The easiest way to think about it is in terms of a hose. When you turn on the garden hose, water flows through it easily (as long as it’s not kinked). So in this scenario.
Faucet = Heart
Hose = Blood Vessels
Water = Blood
Now imagine that someone starts to squeeze the hose making it more narrow? The same amount of water has to go through it, but it has a lot less room to push through, right? This makes the water push much more strongly against the walls of the hose.
You’ve got muscle tissue around all your blood vessels, which constrict and relax depending on your body’s needs. For instance, if you have an adrenaline rush, they constrict very much to increase pressure, so blood can be delivered more quickly to the areas that need it. When you’re in an extreme resting position like sleeping or meditating, blood vessels dilate and allows the heart to pump less strong, and blood to flow more slowly.
My blood pressure is high, so what?
If there are any weak points on the hose, the increased pressure might cause a leak. This is problematic, especially in the brain where there is a lot of blood flowing.
Over time those nice flexible vessels you have, start to become less flexible because of the constant pressure on them. Much like a garden hose that has been sitting out for a long time. The body loses it’s ability to constrict and widen them.
Also over time, plaques begin to build up within the vessels, further narrowing the vessels and increasing pressure throughout the entire system.
There are a whole host of ailments associated with hypertension:
If blood pressure is not controlled the constant pressure of blood moving through a weakened artery can cause a section to form a kind of bubble, this is called an aneurysm. These are potentially life-threatening if an aneurysm ruptures causing internal bleeding. The most common place for them is on the largest artery, the aorta.
- Damage to your heart
Because of the increased pressure, the heart has to work overtime to push blood through the system. Imagine the strain on the faucet pushing the same amount of water through a hose half as wide. This causes a lot of potential problems.
- Coronary artery disease
The muscles of the heart begin to work improperly because the arteries that feed them become permanently constricted. When flood flow is restricted to the heart, this can cause chest pains, irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias) and heart attacks
- Enlarged heart
Because the heart has to work harder, the muscle tissue in the left ventricle gets over developed and begins to thicken (left ventricular hypertrophy). This limits the ability to pump blood to the body potentially causing heart attack, sudden cardiac death and heart failure.
- Heart failure
The prolonged strain on your heart can cause the heart muscle to weaken and become less efficient. You’re heart eventually just fails. This is more common in people who have had multiple heart attacks.
- Damage to your brain
The brain is one of the largest recipients of blood and is vital in keeping the arguably most important organ healthy. Thus, high blood pressure can have a lot of effects on the brain.
- Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
This is a kind of ‘mini-stroke’, and a very strong signal that you’re at severe risk of a proper stroke if you don’t get things in order. Blood supply to the brain is temporarily reduced or fully stopped. These can cause both temporary and permanent brain damage.
When the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen or nutrients over a period of time, this is known as a stroke. When blood pressure is high, this affects the brain’s circulatory network by constricting blood vessels, aneurysms, and blood leaks. Blood clots are another symptom of high blood pressure which can also cause strokes. When blood flow is restricted brain cells die, depending on where the deprivation occurs, can have a myriad of stroke-related ailments.
- Vascular Dementia
This is what happens when blood flow is restricted/reduced to the brain. It causes impairments in thinking, reasoning, speaking, vision, hearing, movement and most any function that the brain serves.
- Mild cognitive impairment
This is a kind of intermediary stage between age-related changes in cognition and memory and serious issues related to Alzheimer’s disease.
- Damage to your kidneys
The kidneys are highly dependent on blood flow for filtering excess fluid and wastes from the blood. When blood flow is restricted that this causes damage to the kidneys and the filtering process. Kidney disease (nephropathy), is exasperated by diabetes.
- Kidney failure
High blood pressure is one of the most common causes of kidney failure. That’s because it can damage both the large arteries leading to your kidneys and the tiny blood vessels (glomeruli) within the kidneys. Damage to either makes it so your kidneys can’t effectively filter waste from your blood. As a result, dangerous levels of fluid and waste can accumulate. You might ultimately require dialysis or kidney transplantation.
- Kidney scarring (glomerulosclerosis)
This is a type of kidney disease that is caused by scarring of the glomeruli. They are tiny blood vessels that are responsible for filtering the blood. If they have to scar due to high blood pressure, it can render the kidneys ineffective.
- Kidney artery aneurysm
Aneurysms can form in the artery leading to the kidney, it’s known as a kidney (renal) artery aneurysm. This is often caused by atherosclerosis (which is associated high blood pressure), weakens and damages the artery wall. If an aneurysm ruptures this can potentially cause a life-threatening situation.
- Damage to your eyes
The eyes also need a consistent supply of blood to function. High blood pressure can have an impact on the tiny delicate blood vessels within the eyes.
- Eye blood vessel damage (retinopathy)
This condition can cause bleeding in the eye, impaired vision or possible complete eye failure.
- Fluid buildup under the retina (choroidopathy)
Due to hypertension, fluid can build up under the retina when blood vessels leak. Choroidopathy can result in impaired vision or permanent scarring that also impairs vision.
- Nerve damage (optic neuropathy)
If blood flow is restricted to the optic nerve, the cells die, which causes bleeding and possible vision loss.
- Sexual dysfunction
Men with uncontrolled high blood pressure can suffer from atherosclerosis, which causes the blood vessels to lose the ability to expand. This decreases blood flow to the penis which makes having and maintaining an erection difficult. This problem is fairly common among men who are not managing their high blood pressure.
Women can also suffer from sexual dysfunction because of hypertension. Reduced blood flow to the vagina can cause a decrease in sexual desire, reduced orgasms, and increased dryness.
How do I know if I have High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)?
You need to get your blood pressure checked. A lot of places offer this service, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores, doctors offices and you can even monitor your blood pressure at home.
If you’re reading this post, you’ve most likely already been diagnosed with hypertension, so if you want to know how severe your case is, use the following chart.
- Quit Smoking
- Lose Weight
- Moderate Exercise
- Healthy Diet (reduced sodium intake)
- Lower Stress
It’s possible that you have secondary hypertension, which is caused by an underlying problem such as Kidney problems, or sleep apnea. You should definitely consult with a physician about your hypertension, especially if your numbers are elevated and you already have a healthy lifestyle.