We can’t see it, touch it, hear it, smell it, or taste it. That makes blood pressure easy to ignore. But we can measure blood pressure, and it’s not looking good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 90 percent of middle-aged American adults will eventually suffer from hypertension. And because blood pressure is so easy to ignore, almost 30 percent of people with hypertension are blissfully unaware of their own condition.
Ignorance may be bliss in some cases, but not when it comes to blood pressure. High blood pressure—measured at 140 mmHg over 80 mmHg or higher—is aptly called “the silent killer.” It can lead to stroke, enlarged heart, congestive heart failure, kidney and eye damage, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), mental decline, and early death. In fact, in 2002, hypertension was cited as a leading or contributing factor in 277,000 American deaths.
Hypertension typically has no symptoms, but it packs a wallop. Paradoxically, hypertension occurs most frequently in developed, Western societies. Our culture of plenty has not resulted in plentiful health. Although the typical Western diet may satisfy our cravings for fat, salt, and sugar, it has left many of us obese and malnourished. Although our Western lifestyle appeals to our couch-potato inclinations, it has made us susceptible to life-threatening illnesses like hypertension. The so-called “good life” may not be so good for us after all.
Defining Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is the force of the bloodstream against the walls of the arteries as they send blood from the heart to the rest of the body. At the end of each artery, tiny blood vessels called arterioles deliver blood to all the tissues. When the walls of the arterioles tighten, blood pressure goes up. When those walls relax, blood pressure goes down. What do those blood pressure numbers mean? The higher number refers to systolic blood pressure, which refers to the pressure exerted when the heart contracts. The lower number, the diastolic pressure, measures the rests between heartbeats.
Most hypertensive Americans have “essential hypertension,” a form of high blood pressure with no clear cause. Rarely, high blood pressure is caused by underlying health issues such as kidney disease or congenital problems. We call this “secondary hypertension.” “Gestational hypertension” may occur during pregnancy, and is implicated in low birth weight and early delivery.
Who Becomes Hypertensive?
High blood pressure does not discriminate: It affects every social class, every race, and every age. However, certain groups are especially vulnerable to hypertension, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
• Men over 45 years old and women over 55 face a higher risk of hypertension than younger people.
• Men are more susceptible to hypertension than women.
• African Americans are more likely to experience high blood pressure than white Americans.
• Those living on or near the poverty line are more likely to develop high blood pressure than those who are not poor.
• People with diabetes face a higher risk of hypertension.
• Overweight people are more likely to have high blood pressure.
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