High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the most serious risks factors for death from heart diseases and strokes, responsible for 13% of all deaths globally. In South Africa more than 1 in 3 adults live with high blood pressure and it is responsible for 1 in every 2 strokes and 2 in every 5 heart attacks.
High blood pressure is known as a 'silent killer' because there are rarely any symptoms or visible signs to warn that blood pressure is high. That is why more than 50% of people with high blood pressure are unaware of their condition. In some cases, typically with very high blood pressure, symptoms such as headaches, visual disturbances, nose bleeds, nausea, vomiting, facial flushing and sleepiness may be experienced.
Do not wait for symptoms to appear. High blood pressure becomes more likely with older age, but anyone, no matter their age, gender, fitness level or lifestyle can develop high blood pressure. Blood pressure should be measured at least once every year, so don’t delay!
A blood pressure measurement is recorded as two numbers: systolic and diastolic. Systolic blood pressure (SBP) indicates the pressure when the heart contracts, and therefore the pressure is always higher. The diastolic blood pressure (DBP) indicates pressure when the heart is resting between beats. A blood pressure measurement is expressed as one figure “over” another, for example, 140/90 mm Hg (SBP/DBP). High blood pressure is diagnosed when EITHER OR BOTH of these values are persistently raised on more than one occasion, when measured correctly.
If blood pressure is slightly higher than normal, a further increase in blood pressure can be prevented. If blood pressure is already high it can be improved by making lifestyle changes and by taking blood pressure medication. A doctor can advise whether someone needs to start medication immediately or if they should first make lifestyle improvements only, based on their other lifestyle risk factors and medical history.
Once someone starts blood pressure medication it is usually permanent, and medication should be taken regularly for it to work well. Sometimes one medication is not sufficient and a second or third medication needs to be added. Making lifestyle changes along with medication is important to achieve the best possible results.
Enough pressure is needed in the arteries for blood to travel from the heart to the different parts of the body. High blood pressure is when the force of the blood flowing through the blood vessels is persistently too high. It is normal for blood pressure to fluctuate, therefore high blood pressure is only diagnosed when it remains high on several occasions or when it is dangerously high on one occasion.
There are various physical and lifestyle factors that can make you more likely to develop high blood pressure. Being aware of your risk factors will help you to identify the changes you can make to lower your risk. Some of these risk factors include:
High blood pressure causes damage to the blood vessels, including the blood vessels inside some of the organs such as the eyes, the kidneys and the brain. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and blindness. The increased workload can also weaken the heart and lead to heart failure. Tiredness, shortness of breath and swollen ankles are often experienced. Blood pressure medication should always be taken exactly as prescribed and should not be stopped or changed unless advised to do so by a medical doctor.
Making small lifestyle changes can make steady improvements in blood pressure. Together, these changes can make a big difference!