Everyone should get their blood pressure tested at least once a year. People who have a family history of hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, heart attack, or kidney disease, are especially encouraged to check their blood pressure annually.

What is hypertension?

Blood pressure is the force your blood exerts against the walls of your arteries. Hypertension occurs when this pressure remains consistently high over a long period of time. It’s often referred to as a “silent killer” because it has little to no symptoms. “Many people with high blood pressure are unaware of their condition until it reaches a critical stage,” says Heinrich Africa, ER24 South Metropole Branch Manager. “The lack of symptoms can be deceptive, as hypertension can silently damage vital organs over time, leading to serious health complications.”

How do I know I have hypertension?

Blood pressure is measured using two numbers: systolic pressure (the top number) when the heart contracts, and diastolic pressure (the bottom number) when the heart relaxes. A normal blood pressure reading is usually around 120/80 mmHg. If your blood pressure consistently exceeds 140/90 mmHg, you have hypertension.

How can hypertension kill you?

Hypertension puts excessive strain on your arteries, causing them to become narrow, stiff, or even burst. This restricts blood flow to organs such as the heart, brain, kidneys, and eyes, leading to severe health consequences.

“One of the most life-threatening complications of hypertension is cardiovascular disease,” says Africa. High blood pressure forces your heart to work harder to pump blood through your arteries, which can lead to an enlarged heart, heart failure, or heart attack. In addition, untreated hypertension can cause damage to blood vessels in the brain, leading to stroke, which can result in severe disability or death. “Hypertension can also damage the delicate blood vessels in your kidneys, leading to chronic kidney disease and kidney failure, Africa says. “Untreated hypertension can also damage the blood vessels in the eyes, leading to retinopathy, which can cause vision loss or even blindness.”

How is hypertension treated?

Managing hypertension requires a multifaceted approach. Lifestyle changes can help lower your blood pressure. They include:

  • adopting a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy
  • reducing salt intake
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • being physically active
  • quitting smoking
  • limiting alcohol intake
  • managing stress.

Your doctor may also prescribe diuretics (“water pills”) to help your kidneys take salt and water out of your body, which lowers the internal pressure. Medications might include Alpha-blockers to help your blood vessels stay relaxed and Beta-blockers to keep your heart from squeezing too hard.

“Certain factors can increase your risk of developing hypertension, such as a family history of high blood pressure, an unhealthy diet, not exercising, being overweight, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and stress,” Africa adds. “However, the good news is that hypertension is often preventable and manageable.”

When is hypertension an emergency?

Seek urgent emergency medical care if your blood pressure reading is 180/120 or higher and you have any of these symptoms, which may be signs of organ damage:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • numbness or weakness
  • change in vision
  • difficulty speaking
  • severe headache.

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