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Understanding High Blood Pressure -- the Basics

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What Is High Blood Pressure? continued...

People with blood pressure readings of 140/90 or higher, taken on at least two occasions, are said to have high blood pressure. For those over age 60, readings of 150/90 or higher indicate high blood pressure. If the pressure remains high, your doctor will probably begin treatment. People with blood pressure readings of 180/120 or higher need treatment immediately. 

Researchers have identified people with blood pressures slightly higher than 120/80 as a category at high risk for developing hypertension. This condition is called pre-hypertension and affects an estimated 50 million American men and women. Pre-hypertension is now known to increase the likelihood of damage to arteries and the heart, brain, and kidneys, so many doctors are now recommending earlier treatment, though there is no evidence that this helps in the long run.

Even so, many people with high blood pressure don't realize they have the condition. Indeed, hypertension is often called "the silent killer" because it rarely causes symptoms, even as it inflicts serious damage to the body. Left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to vision problems, as well as to heart attack, stroke, and other potentially fatal conditions, including kidney failure.

Hypertension may also lead to heart failure, a common but disabling condition that can cause breathing problems. Critically ill patients who have very high blood pressure are said to have malignant hypertension, with a diastolic pressure usually exceeding 120 or a systolic pressure above 180. Malignant hypertension is a dangerous condition that may develop rapidly and cause organ damage quickly. It requires immediate medical attention.

Fortunately, high blood pressure can be controlled effectively. The first step is to have your blood pressure checked regularly.

Who Gets Hypertension?

High blood pressure is more likely in people who:

  • Have a family history of high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Are African-American
  • Are over age 55
  • Are overweight
  • Are not physically active
  • Drink excessively
  • Smoke
  • Eat foods high in salt
  • Use certain medications such as NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin, e.g.), decongestants, and illicit drugs such as cocaine

 

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