May is High Blood Pressure Education Month. Reducing high blood pressure can lower your risk for stroke and heart attack. High blood pressure is also known as hypertension. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly half of adults in the United States have hypertension, defined as a systolic blood pressure greater than 130 mmHg or a diastolic blood pressure greater than 80 mmHg or are taking medication for hypertension. Hypertension makes your heart work too hard and increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Blood pressure measures the force pushing outwards on your arterial walls. The organs in your body need oxygen to survive. Oxygen is carried through the body by the blood. When the heart beats, it creates pressure that pushes blood through a network of tube-shaped arteries and veins, also known as blood vessels and capillaries. The pressure — blood pressure — is the result of two forces. The first force occurs as blood pumps out of the heart and into the arteries that are part of the circulatory system. The second force is created as the heart rests between heartbeats. These two forces are each represented by numbers in a blood pressure reading.
In 2017, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association published new guidelines for hypertension management and defined high hypertension as a blood pressure at or above 130/80 mmHg. Stage 2 hypertension is defined as a blood pressure at or above 140/90 mmHg.
Healthy arteries are made of muscle and a semi-flexible tissue that stretches like elastic when the heart pumps blood through them. The more forcefully that blood pumps, the more the arteries stretch to allow blood to easily flow. Over time, if the force of the blood flow is often high, the tissue that makes up the walls of arteries gets stretched beyond its healthy limit. This creates problems in several ways:
- Vascular weaknesses – overstretching creates weak places in the blood vessels, making them more prone to rupture. Those ruptures can cause strokes and aneurisms.
- Increased risk of blood clots – trapped blood can form clots that can narrow and block the arteries, cutting off the blood supply to different parts of the body. Heart attacks or strokes are often the result.
- Vascular scarring – tiny tears in the blood vessels can leave scar tissue on the walls of arteries and veins. These act like nets, catching debris such as cholesterol, plaque or blood cells traveling in the bloodstream.
- Increased plaque build-up – cholesterol and plaque build-up in the arteries cause the blood flow to become limited or even cut off altogether. As this happens, pressure is increased on the rest of the system, forcing the heart to work harder to deliver blood to your body. If pieces of plaque break off and travel to other parts of the body, heart attacks or strokes are likely to occur.
- Tissue and organ damage from narrowed and blocked arteries – ultimately, the arteries on the other side of the blockage do not receive enough freshly oxygenated blood, which results in tissue damage.
You may not feel that anything is wrong, but hypertension can permanently damage your heart, brain, and kidneys increases your risk of heart attack and heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and other health consequences. Know your blood pressure levels and have them checked on a regular basis. It could save your life.