What is High Blood Pressure?

If you’ve been told you have high blood pressure, also known as Hypertension, you are not alone. Almost half of all adults in the United States have blood pressure that is too high.  But what does that really mean and why does it matter?

First, let’s talk about what high blood pressure is. For blood to reach every part of your body, it flows to and from your heart through a system of tubes called blood vessels.

The term “Blood pressure” means how strongly the blood is being pushed through those tubes, or blood vessels. Think about a faucet or tap in your home. When you first turn the knob, the water comes out slowly because the pressure is low. As you keep turning, the water comes out faster because it’s being pushed out with higher pressure. 

When it comes to your body, your blood pressure needs to be just right. You don’t want too little blood flowing, but you also don’t want it flowing harder and faster than it needs to. If your body has to deal with high pressure day in and day out for years, this can damage the blood vessels. To understand why it causes damage, think of the faucet again. Sometimes you turn the water on very high to clean your pots and pans. The high pressure of the water helps tear away the leftover food on your dishes. But your blood vessels aren’t like dishes; they’re much softer, and fragile. The high pressure can cause tiny tears in the blood vessel walls which can cause trouble over time.  

Once a vessel is damaged this way it is easier for cholesterol and fats, also called lipids, to attach themselves onto the blood vessel wall at the damaged spot. Lipids then start to build up over time. If cholesterol build up gets bad, it blocks the blood flow to important parts of your body like your heart, brain, and kidneys, which can lead to heart attacks, stroke, and kidney damage. 

One in every five deaths in the US is related to high blood pressure because so many important parts of the body are affected by it. Getting your blood pressure numbers to the target you have set with your doctor can help protect you from having a heart attack, a stroke, or kidney damage. 

How high is too high for your blood pressure? Mostly, we focus on the top number of the blood pressure, called systolic blood pressure. This is how high the pressure inside the blood vessels goes each time your heart squeezes. Blood pressure is too high when this number is more than 130 most of the time. Very high blood pressure is when that number is over 180. 

If your blood pressure is too high, what can you do about it? One reason high blood pressure is so common in the US is because of unhealthy habits. Changing what you eat and being more active can help prevent and treat high blood pressure. See the DASH diet and Exercise videos to learn more about it. 

When these lifestyle changes are not enough, your healthcare provider can prescribe medications to help control your blood pressure. Talk to your provider about which treatment options are best for you and work with your healthcare team to get your blood pressure numbers under control.

Changing your diet, your activity level, and taking medications regularly takes a lot of commitment, but it can make a huge difference to your health. Putting in the effort to lower your blood pressure will help lower your risk for a heart attack, stroke, and kidney damage.