The Dangers of High Blood Pressure: Why You Should Know Your Numbers

Henry Tran, MD, is a cardiovascular care physician at the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute. He is board-certified in cardiovascular disease and echocardiography.

High blood pressure is extremely common. But that doesn’t mean it’s nothing to worry about. Untreated high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) can lead to a variety of serious health problems. Fortunately, it’s a condition that can be treated. Here’s what you should know.

Risks of Untreated High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is known as a silent killer. That might sound ominous. But the fact is, most people with high blood pressure don’t have any symptoms. And if it goes on too long, it can lead to many serious illnesses, including:

  • Stroke. High blood pressure can cause blockages in the blood vessels of the brain. That can lead to strokes.
  • Heart disease. Over time, high blood pressure can damage arteries and the heart muscle itself. That can cause chest pain, heart attacks and heart failure. 
  • Cognitive decline. Even slightly high blood pressure can speed up cognitive decline and memory loss in middle-aged and older adults.
  • Other problems. Blood flows to every organ in the body — which means high blood pressure can damage virtually any organ system. Untreated hypertension can damage kidneys, lead to vision loss and cause diabetes.

Hypertension Treatment: Proven Ways to Lower Blood Pressure

The good news: You can take steps to lower your blood pressure.

  • Eat well. A diet that’s high in fiber and low in salt and saturated fat can keep blood pressure in check. Consider a diet such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Hypertension) diet, which has been proven to reduce blood pressure and maintain good health. This eating plan emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains and limits sweets and foods high in saturated fats. 
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity is good for heart health and helps lower blood pressure.
  • Quit smoking. Tobacco use raises blood pressure and increases your risk of stroke and heart disease.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight is often linked to having high blood pressure. Losing weight can reduce blood pressure and also lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.  
  • Take medications. Lifestyle changes like good nutrition and exercise are important for controlling blood pressure. But even with those changes, some people need medications to keep their blood pressure in a healthy range. There are a number of prescription drugs to treat high blood pressure. They’ve been around for decades and have good safety profiles.

Home Blood Pressure Monitoring

There’s another thing you should be doing to manage your blood pressure: Know your numbers. It’s easy to take your blood pressure at home. In fact, the American Heart Association says it’s even more important than having it taken in the doctor’s office.

Some people have normal blood pressure, but it spikes at the doctor’s office. Others have high blood pressure that may not show up during a doctor’s visit. Those false readings mean dangerously high blood pressure can go undiagnosed.

Luckily, you can buy a good at-home blood pressure cuff for under $50. To track blood pressure at home, follow these steps.

  1. If you suspect you have high blood pressure or are starting a new blood pressure medication, measure your blood pressure morning and evening every day for a week. This way, you’ll be able to spot patterns.
  2. Sit quietly for three to five minutes before you take a measurement.
  3. Take three readings each time you measure, waiting a minute between each one. Record the average of the second and third readings.
  4. If the top number of your blood pressure (known as the systolic pressure) is above 140, it’s considered high. However, some doctors encourage treatment if your systolic pressure is above 130. If you’re measuring numbers close to or above 130, talk about it with your doctor.
  5. If you have normal blood pressure or you’re managing high blood pressure with medication, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on your numbers. High blood pressure can develop at any time. To spot problems early, take a blood pressure reading at home once a week or so.

High Blood Pressure Treatment Can Make a Difference

High blood pressure doesn’t have to be a silent killer. It might take some effort to make lifestyle changes and find the right medications to control your blood pressure. But that effort will help you prevent the many serious consequences of untreated hypertension.

Need help controlling your blood pressure and managing your heart health? Find an Inova heart specialist and learn more about the award-winning doctors at Inova Heart and Vascular Institute.

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