Blood pressure is measured as Millimeters of mercury (mmHg), though more often you’ll hear blood pressure described as two numbers: the systolic (top) and diastolic (bottom) readings. These readings are as a fraction, with systolic over diastolic or something like.120/70. The systolic reading is a measure of the force that is created as the heart pushes blood through the aorta and into the circulatory system. The diastolic reading is a measure of the force exerted by the walls of the arteries as they resist blood flow. Blood pressure measurements vary during the course of the day, depending on your activity level or your emotional state. Blood pressure is lower during periods of sleep and will usually rise in response to exercise.

How do I know if I have high blood pressure?

In most instances high blood pressure has no warning signs. The best way to screen for it is to have it checked regularly. A health care professional will diagnose hypertension after several high readings are recorded. Hypertension is generally defined as a blood pressure of 140/90 mmHg or greater.

What causes hypertension and how prevalent is it?

In 90-95% of cases hypertension has no known cause. This type is called essential hypertension. In rarer cases high blood pressure can result from other illnesses like kidney or adrenal gland problems. This is called secondary hypertension.

Based on reporting by the Centers for Disease Control, as many as 50 million Americans have hypertension. The prevalence is 17% among white women, 26% among white men, 37% among black women, and 44% among black men 35-45 years of age. In persons over age 65 the incidence is almost the same among men and women. About 63% of whites and 76% of blacks will develop hypertension when they are older than 65.

Although the cause of hypertension remains unknown, there are factors that are known to increase the chance of developing high blood pressure.

Heredity. If your parents have or had high blood pressure, there is a greater chance that you will also have it.

Race. African-Americans are more likely to develop high blood pressure than their Caucasian counterparts.

Gender. Men run a greater risk than women.

Age. The older we get, the greater the risk.

Obesity. People who are overweight are more likely to develop high blood pressure.

Other factors that have been shown to contribute to hypertension include:

Heavy alcohol consumption

Use of oral contraceptives

Inactive lifestyle

If you have high blood pressure, it is important for you to receive treatment to control your blood pressure and bring it down to normal levels. This will help prevent the many possible complications of hypertension. If a health care provider determines that you have hypertension, you should receive a physical exam including blood work, family medical history, and maybe an electrocardiogram. Based on the findings, along with your actual blood pressure reading, a treatment program will be initiated aimed at lowering your blood pressure. The initial treatment may include lifestyle modifications like changes in diet, smoking cessation, and increasing daily activity. Medication may be used immediately or may be added later.

How can lifestyle changes lower your blood pressure?

A diet that is lower in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods significantly and quickly lowers blood pressure, according to the findings of a nationwide trial funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Reducing salt intake can help to lower blood pressure because salt intake promotes water retention. This adds to the blood volume and subsequently, raises the blood pressure.

Studies have shown that changes in body weight over years, and body fat calculations are related to changes in blood pressure. People who are overweight are much more likely to have hypertension. Losing weight can often result in a reduction of blood pressure.

Smoking is the single greatest risk factor for developing heart disease. By quitting now, you can greatly reduce your risk of developing hypertension and heart disease.

Regular exercise not only helps to control weight gain but has also been shown to lower blood pressure. Your heart is a muscle and exercise is needed to make it strong. Do aerobic activity for at least 30 minutes 3-4 times a week.

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