Sometimes called the “silent killer,” because even when the blood pressure is dangerously high, there are no obvious symptoms - high blood pressure or hypertension is always a matter of concern. Hypertension results when the force of the blood pumping against the blood vessel walls damages the arteries. Hypertension can also damage the heart and cause heart failure. Strokes can result from untreated hypertension, and hypertension increases the risk of heart attack.
People are more likely to develop hypertension as they age because the blood vessel walls become less flexible. Genetics is a factor; hypertension often runs in families, and African Americans are particularly susceptible. People who are overweight, obese or physically unfit have an increased risk of hypertension. Smoking or tobacco use in any form is another risk factor, as is heavy drinking. Stress can cause increased blood pressure, especially chronic stress. Other risk factors include too much salt or too little potassium in the diet, or low vitamin D levels.
Doctors have a variety of medications available to treat hypertension. Beta blockers expand the blood vessels and make the heart beat more slowly and less forcefully. ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, and ARBs are medications that help relax blood vessels. Water pills (diuretics) eliminate excess fluid in the body, which can help reduce blood pressure. Medications that affect hormones or other chemicals in the body may also be used to lower the blood pressure or slow the heart rate.
In some cases, lifestyle changes may be enough to get blood pressure under control. A healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables provides vital nutrients and fiber. Regular exercise reduces stress, helps keep weight under control, keeps the heart strong and promotes overall circulation. Smoking is one of the best-known factors for increasing the risk of heart disease; although it’s better never to start, it’s just as important to stop. Alcohol should be limited to two drinks a day for men and one for women.
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