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World Hypertension Day: Why High Blood Pressure is so dangerous

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Today, 17th May, is World Hypertension Day.

This day comes at the time where an imploding epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases is threatening national healthcare systems sustainability and our countries economy. Last year an estimated 42% to 54% of South Africans were suffering from hypertension and this figure is expected to increase exponentially.

A study by Wits University scientists revealed that South Africa has the highest prevalence of hypertension in southern Africa, as well as the largest number of people whose blood pressure is still not controlled, even while on treatment.

What is hypertension and why is it dangerous?

Blood pressure refers to the force exerted by the blood against the walls of blood vessels. Blood pressure is determined both by the amount of blood your heart pumps and the amount of resistance to blood flow in your arteries. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.

And that’s what hypertension is – a condition in which your blood vessels experience persistent, abnormally high pressure from the blood flowing through them and, long-term, this causes damage to the vessels. Hypertension also causes heart disease and heart attacks – as your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body. High blood pressure develops over years and even without symptoms, damage to blood vessels and the heart continues. Unmanaged hypertension is very dangerous as it leads to aneurysms (weak spots and bulging in your blood vessels) and strokes, kidney failure, blindness, and cognitive impairment.

What are the symptoms ?

Most patients with hypertension may not have any symptoms at all, but it may present as headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations and nose bleeds – all of these could be signs that your heart and blood vessels are under too much pressure.

Which lifestyle choices are putting you at risk of high blood pressure?

According to the Mayo Clinic the biggest risk factors for hypertension are:

  • Age: The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age. Until about age 64, high blood pressure is more common in men. Women are more likely to develop high blood pressure after age 65.
  • Race: High blood pressure is particularly common among people of African heritage, often developing at an earlier age than it does in Caucasian people. Serious complications, such as stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, also are more common in people of African heritage.
  • Being overweight or obese: The more you weigh the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood circulated through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls.
  • Family history: High blood pressure tends to run in families, with a genetic predisposition putting certain people at higher risk.
  • Physical inactivity: People who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction and the stronger the force on your arteries. Lack of physical activity also increases the risk of being overweight.
  • High stress levels: High levels of stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure. If you try to relax by eating more, using tobacco or drinking alcohol, you may only increase your risk factors for high blood pressure.
  • Smoking: Not only does smoking or chewing tobacco immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow and increase your risk of heart disease. Second-hand smoke also can increase your heart disease risk.
  • Excessive alcohol intake – Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than one drink a day for women and more than two drinks a day for men may affect your blood pressure.
  • Making unhealthy food choices – which include eating too much salt (as too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure).
  • Certain chronic conditions. Certain chronic conditions also may increase your risk of high blood pressure, such as kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnoea.

Change your lifestyle habits for a healthier blood pressure!

Hypertension can be managed by adapting your lifestyle towards healthier habits:

  1. Understand the impact of your diet on your health: The best way to keep your salt levels within healthy limits (and to help manage your weight) is to choose whole foods over highly processed foods, to cook at home more, and to get into the habit of reading food labels to identify hidden salt and sugar. Include more plant-based foods such as vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and fruit, and limit notoriously salty foods such as bread, margarine, processed meats, canned soups, stock powders, condiments, crisps and crackers and store-bought sauces. Including unsweetened milk and plain yoghurt in your diet is also a good idea as calcium helps to regulate blood pressure.
  2. Avoid or drink only moderate amounts of alcohol: Alcohol increases blood pressure. Limit alcohol and never have more than one drink (women) or two drinks (men) a day.
  3. Get physical: Any physical activity that increases your heart and breathing rate will help to control blood pressure. Moderate to vigorous physical activity is recommended for at least 150 minutes each week. If you’ve been inactive, start off slowly with walking – a great form of exercise – slowly at ten to fifteen minutes a day and increase the duration and time spent training as your fitness grows. Also build exercise into your day, e.g. use the stairs instead of the lift or escalator.
  4. Don’t smoke and always manage stress: Smoking increases blood pressure and prolonged stress has negative health effects. Quit the habit and make time to relax.
  5. Know your blood pressure numbers: “It’s important to know your health status and to ‘Know your numbers’. Even if you feel fine, have a general check-up once a year or visit a healthcare professional to track your key health numbers often. Prevention and early treatment of hypertension will help keep your heart healthier.”

Screen your blood pressure today for a healthier tomorrow

Source: Mayo Clinic, Health E-News