Living on this planet can get very tasking and demanding. Everything seems to be on the move! In this part of the world, we now practically live the western lifestyle. Couple that with a lack of awareness (or indifference), to the possible complications of that lifestyle and the stress and pressures of work, school, and life in this age generally, there is a high tendency of coming down with this very common condition. That being said, it is very pertinent that we are made aware of this condition and preventive measures against, as it can really impact the quality of life.
Hypertension (also known as High Blood Pressure) is a long term medical condition in which the blood pressure in arteries is PERSISTENTLY elevated. This means that a randomly high blood pressure wouldn’t cause symptoms. Rather, it’s the long period of time and the persistence of the high blood pressure that causes signs & symptoms.
To properly understand this, there’s a need to understand the root cause of the increased pressure. Blood pressure is determined by both the amount of blood the heart pumps and the amount of resistance to blood flow in the arteries. Therefore, the more blood the heart pumps & the narrower the arteries, the higher your BP and vice versa. It is important to also know that high BP may be present for years in a person and cause no symptoms, while silently causing continual damage to the blood vessels and heart. This is why everyone needs to carry out regular BP checks as hypertension can happen to anyone. Its a potentially dangerous myth to attribute this condition to only adults, as there are now well documented cases in children and youths!
Hypertension doesn’t really present with specific and pathognomonic symptoms even if the BP value is hitting dangerously high levels. In fact, a lot of people find out about it when seeking treatment for other unrelated health issues. However some people with the condition report headaches (especially at the back of the head/ in the morning), lightheadedness, vertigo, tinnitus (buzzing in the ears), altered vision, fainting episodes, shortness of breath or nosebleeds; but these symptoms are not specific to hypertension alone. Symptoms can also occur in secondary hypertension (which is hypertension due to primary identifiable causes) like in pregnancy, in hypertensive crisis; BP>180/110 indicating possible end organ damage, and in children.
There are 2 types of hypertension; PRIMARY (ESSENTIAL) HYPERTENSION which has no identifiable cause as it is subject to aging, genetic and environmental factors like increased salt intake, lack of exercise, obesity, depression, low birth weight, smoking, lack of breast feeding and SECONDARY HYPERTENSION which is due to underlying conditions like kidney problems (most common), thyroid problems, adrenal gland problems, use of medications like birth control pills, illegal drugs like cocaine, alcohol abuse, herbal use. The symptoms in secondary hypertension occur suddenly and cause higher BP values than those in primary hypertension.
In our environment, where so many things prevent us from living healthy, there are a lot of risk factors that can precipitate hypertension. They include;
Age: The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age. Through early middle age, or about age 45, high blood pressure is more common in men. Women are more likely to develop high blood pressure after age 65.
Race: High blood pressure is particularly common among blacks, often developing at an earlier age than it does in whites. Serious complications, such as stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, also are more common in blacks.
Family history: High blood pressure tends to run in families.
Being overweight or obese: The more you weigh the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood circulated through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls.
Not being physically active: People who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction and the stronger the force on your arteries. Lack of physical activity also increases the risk of being overweight.
Using tobacco: Not only does smoking or chewing tobacco immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure. Secondhand smoke also can increase your blood pressure.
Too much salt (sodium) in your diet: Too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.
Too little potassium in your diet: Potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. If you don’t get enough potassium in your diet or retain enough potassium, you may accumulate too much sodium in your blood.
Too little vitamin D in your diet: It’s uncertain if having too little vitamin D in your diet can lead to high blood pressure. Vitamin D may affect an enzyme produced by your kidneys that affects your blood pressure.
Drinking too much alcohol: Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than two drinks a day for men and more than one drink a day for women may affect your blood pressure. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
Stress: High levels of stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure. If you try to relax by eating more, using tobacco or drinking alcohol, you may only increase problems with high blood pressure.
Certain chronic conditions: Certain chronic conditions also may increase your risk of high blood pressure, such as kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea.
Sometimes pregnancy can also contribute to high blood pressure. Although high blood pressure is most common in adults, children and young people are now increasingly at risk. For some children, high blood pressure is caused by problems with the kidneys or heart. But for a growing number of kids, poor lifestyle habits, such as an unhealthy diet, obesity and lack of exercise, contribute to high blood pressure.
With all these risk factors listed above, you can guess what some of the complications can be. Now, the excessive pressure on the artery walls caused by high blood pressure can damage the blood vessels, as well as organs in the body. The higher the blood pressure and the longer it goes uncontrolled, the greater the damage.
Complications may include;
Heart attack or stroke: High blood pressure can cause hardening and thickening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which can lead to a heart attack, stroke or other complications.
Aneurysm: Increased blood pressure can cause the blood vessels to weaken and bulge, forming an aneurysm. If an aneurysm ruptures, it can be quite life-threatening.
Heart failure: To pump blood against the higher pressure in the vessels, the heart muscle thickens. Eventually, the thickened muscle may have a hard time pumping enough blood to meet the body’s needs, which can lead to heart failure.
Weakened and narrowed blood vessels in your kidneys: This can prevent the kidneys from functioning normally.
Thickened, narrowed or torn blood vessels in the eyes resulting in vision loss.
Metabolic syndrome: This syndrome is a cluster of disorders of the body’s metabolism, including increased waist circumference; high triglycerides; low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol; high blood pressure; and high insulin levels. These conditions make one more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Trouble with memory or understanding: Uncontrolled high blood pressure may also affect the ability to think, remember and learn. Trouble with memory or understanding concepts is more common in people with high blood pressure.
Even with all these risk factors and possible complications, there is good news. Hypertension can be prevented and even controlled well enough to live a normal, happy life. Management of hypertension is divided into 2; lifestyle modification and medication.
Lifestyle modification is usually the first mode of action in preventing or controlling high BP. A healthy diet with less salt and adequate potassium intake , regular exercising, quitting smoking, reduction of alcohol intake and weight loss would go a long way in preventing and controlling high BP. However, for those that are already hypertensive, lifestyle changes might not be enough, so medication is added. These drugs are given with a view to taking the blood pressure to the appropriate values for the age and health status of the individual. Do not share your medication.
Prevention is said to be better than cure. Do not forget that it takes only a HEALTHY person to achieve anything in life. Ensure that you see your doctor regularly, get your BP checked. You just might be saving your life!
Editor: Dr Sade