Hypertension (high blood pressure) is one of the major causes of cardiovascular disease and premature death in the world. More than one billion people worldwide and around a third of UK adults live with hypertension with many of them not knowing they have the condition, increasing their risks of serious health problems and even death.
What is blood pressure?
When we talk about blood pressure, we are referring to the pressure of blood in the arteries while being pumped by the heart through your body. Your blood pressure does not stay at the same level throughout the day and some variations are normal. Depending on what you are doing, your blood pressure could become higher (for example during physical exercise, when you are mentally working hard, when you are in pain or when you are under stress) or lower (when resting or sleeping).
How to get your blood pressure reading
Blood pressure can only be measured with a device called a sphygmomanometer, found at GP surgeries or some pharmacies. You may also find one at your workplace or you can purchase one to get your blood pressure reading at home.
A sphygmomanometer usually has a small stethoscope (or a sensor) and an arm cuff. The cuff is placed around your upper arm while this is held out (with support) at the same height as your heart . The cuff is then pumped up, squeezing your arm to restrict the blood flow. After a few seconds, the pressure in the cuff is slowly released while the stethoscope or the sensor detects your pulse as the blood flow starts to return to your arm. You can usually find out your result straight away.
The pressure in the cuff is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg) and is recorded in two numbers:
- Firstly, the systolic pressure - the pressure of your blood when your heart pumps blood around your body
- Secondly, the diastolic pressure - the pressure of your blood between heart beats
Your blood pressure may look like this: 90/60 mmHg.
Understanding your blood pressure reading
According to the NHS, a good blood pressure is usually considered to be between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg, but everyone's blood pressure can be slightly different.
As a guide, the NHS suggests:
- If your blood pressure is lower than 90/60mmHg, you are considered to have low blood pressure.
- If your blood pressure measurement reads between 120/80mmHg and 140/90mmHg, you could be at risk of developing high blood pressure, so you need to take steps to keep your blood pressure under control.
- With a reading of 140/90mmHg or higher, you are considered to have high blood pressure.
Is low blood pressure bad?
Low blood pressure, also known as hypotension, is often not a reason of concern and most people with low blood pressure don’t have any symptoms. In fact, British Heart Foundation believes that people with low blood pressure tend to live longer than those with high, or even normal blood pressure. However, if you often get symptoms such as dizziness, fainting, blurred vision, weakness or nausea, you should see your doctor as low blood pressure could be caused by a health condition like diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart problems or anaemia.
How dangerous is high blood pressure?
High blood pressure, medically known as hypertension, is a common condition. It often doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms and immediate problems, but if ignored it can lead to life-threatening health problems.
Your arteries are naturally stretchy to cope with the blood pressure going up and down, but a consistently high blood pressure can make your arteries stiff or narrow, making it easier for fatty material to clog them up. If this happens to the arteries that carry blood to your heart or your brain, it can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. Also, when your blood pressure is high, your heart works harder in pumping blood, which can lead to heart and circulatory diseases, kidney failure, heart failure, problems with your sight and vascular dementia.
What causes high blood pressure?
It’s not always clear what causes high blood pressure. Most often, it can be triggered by a certain lifestyle such as:
- Unhealthy diet
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Being overweight
- Eating too much salt
- Not enough physical exercise
There are also some categories of people who are at a higher risk of developing hypertension:
- People who have high blood pressure running in the family
- Older people
- People living in deprived areas
- People of black African or black Caribbean descent
In a small number of cases, hypertension can also be caused by an abnormal production of hormones. This usually happens in patients with kidney disease, diabetes or people who take oral contraceptives or some herbal medicines. This is called secondary hypertension and the doctor can usually identify the exact cause.
How do you treat or prevent high blood pressure
Your overall lifestyle plays an important role in regulating your blood pressure. By leading a healthier life, you can help lower your blood pressure naturally when you have hypertension, or you can help prevent high blood pressure and keep your heart and body healthy. Here are some things you can do:
- Cut down on salt. It’s recommended that adults should have no more than six grams of salt a day (about one teaspoon). But don’t forget that’s not just the salt you add separately to your food - most processed foods you eat have salt and sodium chloride added at manufacture.
- Eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetable each day. These are rich in potassium, magnesium and fibre, which have been shown to lower blood pressure.
- Get some calcium in your diet. This has also been proved to lower blood pressure. Dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese are good sources of calcium but they can also be high in saturated fat, so opt for lower fat versions.
- Drinking a lot of alcohol will raise your blood pressure in time.
- Alcohol also has many calories which can make you put on wight, raising your blood pressure.
- Gaining weight raises your blood pressure because your heart has to work harder to pump the blood in your body.
- On the other hands, losing weight when you are overweight will help you control your blood pressure. Here is some help on how to get to your healthy weight.
- When you make physical exercise a part of your lifestyle, you are keeping your heart and blood vessels in good form, preventing high blood pressure.
- If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, you will most likely be recommended to be more active to reduce your blood pressure.
- Each cigarette you smoke causes a temporary rise in blood pressure. In the long run, this can damage the walls of your blood vessels and narrow your arteries, so your blood is more likely to clot and forces your heart to work harder.
- If you already have high blood pressure and you smoke, the whole process happens much faster, dramatically raising your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
- When you regularly lose sleep, you are more likely to become overweight and develop high blood pressure.
- Sleeping less than five hours a night, insomnia and interrupted sleep have been shown to raise blood pressure, mainly in middle-aged women.
Some people who have been diagnosed with hypertension may also need to take medications to help lower their blood pressure, as prescribed by their doctor.
What to take away
As hypertension rarely causes noticeable symptoms before developing into a serious condition, it’s important to check your blood pressure regularly, even if you feel healthy. If you’re over 40, British Heart Foundation recommends getting it checked at least every five years, but if you know you’re at risk of high blood pressure, make sure you do it at least once a year.
In the meantime, things like a heathy diet, physical exercise, good sleep, less alcohol and quitting smoking can help you control your blood pressure while living with hypertension or can help you prevent high blood pressure as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Disclaimer: The content of this article is provided for informational purposes only and does not substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional.