High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) is a potentially serious condition that can lead to heart problems, kidney disease, and stroke, among others. One in three adults in the UK has high blood pressure. However, it usually has no symptoms, meaning high blood pressure often goes undiagnosed.
Blood pressure tests are very quick and simple, and it is recommended that you have one on a yearly basis – especially if you fall into a demographic that is at risk from high blood pressure.
What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the pressure of circulating blood against the walls of the arteries. It is recorded as two numbers, presented as a fraction. The two numbers concern:
- Systolic pressure: the pressure of the blood in the arteries when the heart beats to pump blood out.
- Diastolic pressure: the pressure of the blood in the arteries between each heartbeat as the heart refills with blood.
Systolic is placed above diastolic and is always the higher number. Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury: mmHg. So a reading of 120mmHg / 70mmHg means your systolic (active) pressure is 120 millimetres of mercury and your diastolic (resting) pressure is 70 millimetres of mercury. Generally, a doctor will just say ‘120 over 70’.The chart below is taken from Blood Pressure UK. It shows the different categories your blood pressure reading can fall into. A reading of 130 over 85 is slightly high, whereas a reading of 98 over 71 is ideal.
What is high blood pressure?
High blood pressure occurs when the pressure of blood against the artery walls exceeds a healthy reading.
Symptoms of high blood pressure
High blood pressure has no obvious symptoms. Therefore you must get your blood pressure checked regularly regardless of how you might be feeling. Visit your GP to arrange a blood pressure test, or you can take your blood pressure at home, using a home monitor.
Causes of high blood pressure
Plenty of factors can cause high blood pressure. Some are controllable, some not:
- Age: as you get older, the risk of developing high blood pressure increases
- Family history: high blood pressure often runs in families
- Ethnicity: people of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin are particularly at risk.
- Salt: too much salt is linked to high blood pressure
- Lack of exercise: regular exercise is important for healthy blood pressure
- Being overweight: overweight people tend to have higher blood pressure
- Smoking: smoking raises your blood pressure.
- Excessive alcohol: drinking too much can raise blood pressure.
Potential effects of high blood pressure
High blood pressure (HBP) puts extra strain on your heart and arteries. Over time this can lead to a number of possible conditions including:
- Heart Attack: HBP forces your heart to work harder to pump blood. The increased strain can cause a heart attack.
- Heart Disease: HBP can damage the lining of your arteries, causing arteriosclerosis, where the artery walls thicken and lose their elasticity. This can lead to various forms of heart disease and circulatory problems, which can contribute to erectile dysfunction.
- Stroke: HBP can cause blood clots and weaken blood vessels, limiting blood flow and potentially causing a stroke.
- Kidney Disease: HBP is a common cause of kidney failure; it damages arteries leading to the kidneys and blood vessels within the kidneys.
- Dementia: Narrow and blocked arteries leading to the brain can result in vascular dementia. HBP is often the cause.
How to reduce blood pressure: 5 simple tips
1. Regular exercise
You don’t need to run a marathon every week; just make sure you do enough exercise to get your heart beating faster. Breaking into a sweat is a good indicator that you’re doing it right.
Walking, swimming, cycling or even dancing for 10 minutes a day are good ways to keep your cardiovascular system ticking over.
Bear in mind that you should not take up a new exercise regime without first consulting your doctor – this is especially the case if you are over 45.
2. Lose weight
Obesity can seriously increase your risk of high blood pressure. Taking regular exercise and eating a balanced diet is the best way to lose excess weight.
A good way to determine if you are overweight is to calculate your body mass index (BMI). This looks at your weight, depending on what height you are. The healthy range for an adult is 18.5 to 24.9. A person with a score of more than 25 is considered to be overweight.
3. Cut down on alcohol
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can raise blood pressure. Recommended daily limits are three to four units for men, and two to three units for women.
It is recommended that people take a rest from drinking for, at the very least, two days in the week in order for the body to recover.
Alcohol also contains many hidden calories that can contribute to weight gain.
4. Eat less salt
Adults are advised to eat no more than 6g of salt a day.
Too much salt prompts the body to retain fluid. Too much fluid can increase blood pressure.
Many foods contain added salt, so it can be difficult to measure how much you are consuming each day.
Foods high in salt include processed meat (e.g. bacon or ham), cheese, pickles, gravy and stock, soy sauce, olives, pasta sauces, cereals and crisps.
5. Reduce stress levels
Stressful situations can temporarily raise your blood pressure.
The link between stress and long-term hypertension is still not clear. Stress can contribute to a number of bad lifestyle choices such as eating poorly, drinking too much and smoking.
Try to reduce your stress levels by recognising the situations that cause stress and anxiety. Once this is done, it will be easier to employ stress-busting techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation and yoga.
Trying to change your outlook when faced with stressful situations also helps. A positive frame of mind can work wonders. See your GP or an experienced counsellor for help and advice.
And lastly, get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation can alter your mood and make a difficult situation seem much worse.
If you have any questions regarding high blood pressure, you’re advised to speak to your GP first.