By Emily Kaderly
Almost half of all Americans have high blood pressure, but many don’t realize they’re affected. Do you know the risk factors of this silent killer?
Sneaky Signs You Might Have Hypertension
To keep our bodies running, our hearts continually pump blood throughout an elaborate network of veins, arteries, and capillaries that weaves its way from head to toe. The pressure associated with this movement is known as blood pressure, and it’s made up of two separate forces. The first, known as systolic pressure, measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats, and the second, known as diastolic pressure, measures the pressure in your blood vessels between heart beats. That’s why a blood pressure reading includes two separate numbers. Lisa Phillips, a nurse practitioner with Hamilton Physician Group, shares, “Normal blood pressure is defined as 120/80. Blood pressures from 120/80 to 139/89 are often referred to as prehypertension, while blood pressure of 140/90 is considered too high. It is important to keep in mind, however, that even blood pressures in the 130/80-139/89 nearly double your risk for cardiovascular disease. For this reason, the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association define blood pressure in this range as Stage I Hypertension and recommend treatment. If your blood pressure is consistently staying above this range, your provider needs to be aware so you can discuss how to improve it.
Over time, hypertension can damage the vessel walls, allow plaque buildup, and block arteries, all of which can manifest into bigger problems. Dr. Carter Hemphill, a cardiologist with The Chattanooga Heart Institute at CHI Memorial, explains, “Hypertension is a well-known risk factor for stroke, heart attack and congestive heart failure, kidney failure, vascular disease such as aneurysm formation, and even dementia. Control of hypertension is an important part of maximizing your healthy lifespan.”
The issue can be especially dangerous because many people aren’t aware they have it until it’s too late. Dr. Jennifer Mirza, a cardiologist with Parkridge Medical Group, explains, “Some people say they can feel when their blood pressure is high as evidenced by a headache or pounding in their head. Oftentimes, though, people are unaware of elevated blood pressure, which is why we call hypertension a ‘silent killer.’” Here, we share some of the sneaky signs that you may be struggling with hypertension and not even know it.
The stresses of daily life can contribute to high blood pressure over time. Every time you experience stress, whether it’s being stuck in traffic or having an argument, your blood pressure can spike. “Stress increases certain types of hormones in the body that can increase blood pressure,” explains Dr. Mirza. “The emotional response of stress can increase heart rates and cause the blood pressure to climb too.” Eventually, these spikes can significantly alter your blood pressure. In addition, stress can lead to poor decision-making that can negatively affect your blood pressure, like reaching for that candy bar or slice of pizza. These choices often lead to weight gain, another risk factor for high blood pressure.
Blood pressure can increase as body weight increases. When you’re carrying extra weight, you’re putting added strain on your heart and potentially damaging your blood vessels. If your BMI is 25 or greater, you could be at risk. This is especially true if you carry your extra weight in your waist, as blood pressure increases are directly linked to weight gain in the abdominals, or belly fat. Fortunately, even a small weight loss can significantly help to lower your risk of developing hypertension. Dr. Hemphill explains, “Overweight or obese people who are able to lose enough weight and maintain the weight loss are often able to reduce their blood pressure or even come off of some or all of their antihypertensive medications.”
High blood pressure tends to run in families, which means if you have relatives with hypertension, you’re predisposed. And with that, the closer the genetic connection, the higher the risk. If you’re African American, your likelihood of inheriting cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure is even higher. African Americans also tend to develop high blood pressure earlier in life than people of other ethnicities.
Studies have shown getting five or fewer hours of sleep at night could put you at a 39% greater risk of developing coronary heart disease. “It is thought that sleep helps regulate hormones and helps maintain a healthy nervous system,” explains Phillips. “In addition, obstructive sleep apnea is a common cause of inadequate sleep that can not only lead to high blood pressure but can also increase the risk of heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias, pulmonary hypertension, and poor exercise capacity due to shortness of breath.”
Your blood pressure is directly affected by how much alcohol you drink. Studies show that ingesting three or more drinks in one sitting increases your risk of high blood pressure temporarily, while binge drinking can lead to long-term increases. You also increase your risk if you drink every day or outside of mealtimes. If you’re a heavy drinker, slowly reduce your drinking over a few weeks, as stopping suddenly can cause high blood pressure for several days.
If you’re a woman, you have an increased risk of high blood pressure for several reasons. Hormonal changes throughout a woman’s life can affect her blood pressure, particularly during pregnancy and menopause. Pregnant women can develop gestational hypertension, which is a dangerous form of high blood pressure that happens after 20 weeks of pregnancy and should be monitored closely, since it can be dangerous to both mother and child. Following menopause, women are more likely to develop hypertension than their male counterparts. “After age 64, the risk is higher for women with as many as 80% of women over age 75 dealing with high blood pressure,” Phillips says.
Sodium intake is the biggest diet culprit of high blood pressure, and unfortunately, processed foods tend to include substantial amounts of sodium. As much as 75% of the sodium Americans eat every day comes from processed foods like frozen pizza, deli meat, soups, and canned goods. Dr. Hemphill explains, “In the United States, most dietary sodium comes from processed or commercially prepared foods rather than salt from a salt shaker. Reducing dietary sodium, usually by reducing consumption of processed foods, is one of the first lifestyle modifications I recommend for control of blood pressure.” Reading labels and sticking to more natural foods can be beneficial.
There are a number of prescription, over-the-counter, and supplemental medications that can affect your blood pressure. “These medications affect hormonal balances that lead to hypertension,” says Dr. Mizra. Certain NSAIDS like Advil and Motrin can cause you to retain water, which, in turn, can cause kidney problems leading to increased blood pressure. Antidepressants work by changing your body’s chemical reactions to affect your moods. These same changes can negatively affect your blood pressure. Likewise, hormonal birth control pills and devices can affect your blood pressure since they can alter hormones that narrow blood vessels and lead to hypertension.
Hormonal birth control pills and devices can affect your blood pressure since they can alter hormones that narrow blood vessels.
Changes That Matter Although having high blood pressure can lead to serious consequences, there are steps you can take to help lower your blood pressure. Make sure to eat a healthy, balanced diet that’s low in sodium. Lose any extra weight you might be carrying, especially if you carry it in your waist. Make healthy choices daily by increasing exercise, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and quitting smoking. Reduce your stress levels by making time to relax and avoiding triggers whenever possible. Most importantly, know your numbers. The best way to detect changes and elevated blood pressure levels is to monitor them regularly. At-home blood pressure monitors are readily available without a prescription, or you can use the blood pressure machines at your local pharmacy. Tracking your results over time can keep you informed and let you know what behaviors affect your blood pressure. If you think your blood pressure is on the rise, consult your doctor about ways to keep your numbers in check.