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Understanding Blood Pressure Risks

Updated on December 27, 2010

Your blood pressure can have a significant effect on your health. High blood pressure (hypertension) can contribute to a range of health problems, including heart disease, kidney damage and strokes. Low blood pressure (hypotension) can cause health problems, but these are usually very minor and it is not considered to be a serious problem. High blood pressure can be effectively controlled using medication and lifestyle changes. As long as you eat a healthy and balanced diet and take plenty of regular exercise, blood pressure risks can be dealt with.

What Is Blood Pressure?

Your blood pressure refers to the pressure of the blood that is flowing through your arteries. Blood pressure readings are given as two numbers (for example, 149/85 mmHg). The first (or top) number is the systolic pressure (the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts), while the second (or bottom) number is the diastolic pressure (the pressure in the arteries during the rest between heartbeats). Anything above 140/90 mmHg is considered to be high, although blood pressure can be considered high if either the systolic pressure or the diastolic pressure is high. A reading of 160/100 mmHg or above is considered to be particularly high and will need medication to lower it. A reading of 140/90 mmHg is seen as mildly high but medication will not usually be prescribed to lower it unless you suffer from diabetes, have a cardiovascular disease (or are at a high risk of developing a cardiovascular disease) or have heart or kidney damage. This is because the majority of people with mildly high blood pressure are not considered to be at significant risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke unless they fall into one of these at-risk categories.

It is common to have high blood pressure readings on an occasional basis - especially if you become anxious before having your blood pressure checked by a doctor or nurse-. For this reason, doctors will subsequently advise an "observation period" in which your blood pressure is checked every few weeks or months to determine whether your blood pressure is continuously high. During this time, you are advised to make some adjustments to your lifestyle, such as taking more regular exercise and eating a balanced diet.

On the other hand, your blood pressure may be low, and a reading of 90/60 mmHg is generally considered to be indicative of low blood pressure. Alternatively, either the systolic pressure or the diastolic pressure can be low (with the other reading being higher). Low blood pressure can cause symptoms such as dizziness, fainting, light-headedness, irregular heartbeats (palpitations), blurred vision, nausea and a general feeling of weakness, but as it is considered to be a sign of good health, you only need to have treatment for it if symptoms are a particular problem.

What Causes High or Low Blood Pressure?

Your blood pressure can alter as a result of everyday factors, such as the time of day, whether you have eaten or exercised recently, whether you are stressed, your age and your current body temperature. Your blood pressure tends to fall during the night and will be lower early in the morning. It will rise if you have recently done some degree of physical exercise, while most people's blood pressure will fall after eating due to the fact that food is in the process of being digested. Stress and anxiety cause your heart to beat faster, which can then raise your blood pressure - hence why many people find that their blood pressure reading is high if they are nervous before they attend an appointment. Blood pressure often rises with age. Finally, your blood pressure will fall if you are feeling cold due to the fact that your heart is beating more slowly. For high blood pressure, everyday factors such as your weight, your diet, whether you smoke and drink alcohol excessively and how much exercise you take can be significant contributors to the condition.

High blood pressure can be caused by genetics, excessive stress, a high intake of salt, obesity, smoking and consuming alcohol. If high blood pressure runs in your family, you are much more likely to develop the condition. In fact, research suggests that you could be twice as likely to develop high blood pressure if there is a family history of the condition. If you have any of the other "trigger" factors, your likelihood of having high blood pressure rises dramatically. For example, research indicates that drinking alcohol on an excessive basis can increase the risks of high blood pressure by two and a half times.

The Risks

Having high blood pressure puts considerable strain on your arteries, and this can cause them to become damaged. In addition, it can put strain on your heart and contributes to cardiovascular diseases (such as angina, a stroke or a heart attack) that can ultimately damage the heart. Some of the other complications of high blood pressure include:

1. Hardening of the blood vessels

In a healthy individual, the blood vessels can expand to allow more blood to circulate to the vital organs if necessary. High blood pressure can cause the blood vessels to become constricted. If this happens, they cannot expand and less blood is able to travel through them. Over time, they may narrow to the extent that they become blocked and blood cannot pass through at all.

2. Heart failure

As your heart has to work harder if you have high blood pressure, it will eventually struggle to pump blood around your body. This will probably not happen straight away, but at some point the strain will become too much. This is known as congestive heart failure.

3. Kidney damage

If your blood pressure is high, your kidneys are not able to filter your blood properly. At the same time, your kidneys can also become damaged.

4. Inflammation of the arterioles

This occurs in some individuals with high blood pressure, and involves rapidly increasing blood pressure (known as accelerated hypertension), retinal (kidney) hemorrhages and eventual kidney failure. As this is an extremely serious complication of high blood pressure, it will result in death within a year.

5. Thinning of the main artery (aorta)

This will occur in some individuals with high blood pressure, and needs to be diagnosed quickly for treatment to be successful. If the aorta begins to become thin, it can result in the cells literally rotting away. As you might expect, this will ultimately prove fatal if treatment is not given soon.

6. Death

Without being prescribed medication or making lifestyle changes to reduce your blood pressure, high blood pressure will reduce your life expectancy. The higher your blood pressure, the shorter your life expectancy so it really does pay to make the effort to reduce your blood pressure as much as possible.

Having low blood pressure can mean that there is not enough blood circulating to your vital organs (especially your brain) as pressure of the blood flowing through your arteries is on the low side. However, most people with lower than average blood pressure will have no symptoms and the condition will pose no real health threats.

Addressing The Risks

High blood pressure does not usually have any symptoms, so it is often impossible to know if you have it unless you have your blood pressure checked by a doctor or nurse as part of a routine check-up. Because of this, high blood pressure can go unnoticed for several years before it is finally picked up. As high blood pressure can be a serious health problem if left unchecked, it pays to address the risks as quickly as possible after a diagnosis has been made. For high blood pressure that is not considered to warrant medication to control it, lifestyle changes are recommended to address the situation. These steps should involve limiting the amount of salt and saturated fat that you consume as part of your everyday diet, increasing your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, doing thirty minutes of mild exercise several times per week (ideally, this should be exercise that is strenuous enough to leave you moderately breathless), avoiding smoking, losing weight if you are currently overweight and decreasing your intake of caffeine and alcohol. Doing all that you can to lower your blood pressure can go a long way towards reducing your likelihood of developing cardiovascular diseases in the future.

You do not need to reduce your blood pressure reading by a significant amount to cut the health risks associated with high blood pressure. Bringing your reading down by 6 mmHg can dramatically reduce your risk of having a stroke by as much as forty per cent. At the same time, your chances of developing heart disease can decrease by up to twenty five per cent.

The Consequences of Not Addressing The Risks

If your blood pressure remains high, your chances of developing significant health problems are increased. This is especially true of cardiovascular diseases. Ideally, you should be aiming for a blood pressure reading of around 120/80 mmHg or lower. However, this target should be even lower if you have diabetes, chronic kidney damage or a cardiovascular disease. For example, you should be aiming for a lower blood pressure reading if you suffer from diabetes.


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    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Very thorough reseach. Great article. Thanks

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      Very, very interesting. Thank you for such a comprehensive hub.