High blood pressure, medically called hypertension, occurs when the pressure of blood flowing through the arteries becomes too high. It's estimated that more than 74 million adults in the United States suffer from the condition---many of them unaware because of a lack of symptoms or failure to get blood pressure screenings. Left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, kidney damage, aneurysms, stroke and other life-threatening conditions.
Age, race and heredity all play a role in high blood pressure. African Americans are most at risk, as are those with a family history of the disease. The condition most often occurs in people over thirty, and the risk increases as you get older. While these are all uncontrollable risk factors, there are more that can be controlled, including:
A lack of regular exercise
A diet high in fat, sodium and alcohol
Most people with high blood pressure experience no symptoms. That's why regular screenings are so important, and why health experts have nicknamed high blood pressure "the silent killer." For those who do experience symptoms, they are often vague and mimic other illnesses. Headache, dizziness, blurred vision and nausea are among the most common.
A fast, simple screening with a blood pressure cuff---called a sphygmomanometer---can determine whether you have high blood pressure. The device measures the pressure in the arteries while both the heart is beating (top or systolic number) and at rest between beats (bottom or diastolic number).
Health experts consider a reading of 120/80 or lower to be a normal blood pressure. High numbers are classified as:
140-159/90-99: Stage 1 hypertension
160 or higher/100 or higher: Stage 2 hypertension
Call your doctor immediately if a home- or community-based screening shows a blood pressure of 140/90 or higher, especially if you are also experiencing:
Headache with or without nausea
Change in vision
Shortness of breath during physical activity
Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room if symptoms are severe.
While prescription medications can help keep severe blood pressure under control, lifestyle plays a major role in both preventing and controlling the condition. Help keep blood pressure low by:
Exercising regularly. Doctors recommend a minimum of thirty minutes a day.
Maintaining a healthy weight.
Eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; low in sodium, fat and red meat.
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