Hypertension, otherwise known as high blood pressure, is a common condition that occurs when the sustained pressure of blood flowing through arteries rises, forcing the heart to work harder than usual. Extended periods of uncontrolled high blood pressure can result in a number of serious health issues, including stroke and heart attack.
According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada, there are two measures used to diagnose hypertension: The top number (systolic) refers to the pressure inside arteries when the heart contracts; the bottom number (diastolic) refers to the pressure when the heart is in between beats. There are three categories for hypertension, low risk (a measurement of 120 / 80), medium risk (121-134 / 80-84) and high risk (135+ / 85+).
Symptoms of hypertension
Hypertension is often referred to as the silent killer because many people with dangerously high blood pressure exhibit no symptoms. According to the Cleveland Clinic, some patients may experience shortness of breath, headaches or nose bleeds but these symptoms can be vague and appear only once the condition has become life-threatening.
The best way to determine if you have hypertension is to have a doctor or other health professional check your blood pressure. Be sure to ask how often you need to get tested.
If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, your doctor or healthcare professional may suggest you use a home monitor to keep track of your condition. The devices, which are inexpensive and easy to find, help determine which interventions are proving successful. Some recommended lifestyle changes that can lower blood pressure include: Eating a healthy diet with less salt, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight or losing weight (if necessary), quitting smoking, limiting alcoholic intake and finding ways to better manage stress and anger.
If lifestyle changes prove ineffective, you may be prescribed certain medications to help lower your blood pressure.
There are two types of hypertension: Primary (or essential), which develops gradually over time and secondary, which tends to occur suddenly and as a result of an underlying condition, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some conditions or medications that may lead to secondary hypertension include kidney disease, obstructive sleep apnea, thyroid problems, adrenal gland tumours, certain birth defects, certain medications (such as birth control pills, cold remedies, decongestants, pain relievers and some prescription drugs) and illegal drugs (such as amphetamines and cocaine). Hypertension mainly targets adults but a growing number of children are developing high blood pressure, due to heart or kidney problems or worsening lifestyle habits.
Some risk factors for hypertension are beyond a patient’s control, but others can be influenced by lifestyle changes. The list of risks includes: age (risk increases over time and is more common in men than women until age 65); race (hypertension is more common in people of African descent); being overweight (the more a person weighs, the more blood they need in circulation, raising the risk of hypertension); family history (high blood pressure tends to run in the family, though the inheritance pattern is unclear); inactivity (a lack of physical activity generally forces the heart to work harder and can lead to excess weight, which compounds the issue); and alcohol (heavy use can damage the heart and may lead to hypertension).
Prevalence of hypertension
Around 7.5 million Canadians (or 22.6 per cent of adults) have high blood pressure, according to Hypertension Canada, making it one of the leading risks for death and disability in the country. Another 20 per cent are estimated to have pre-hypertension. Nine out of 10 Canadians will experience high blood pressure at some point in their lives if they reach an average lifespan. As of 2020, it is estimated that high blood pressure takes a $20-billion toll on the Canadian economy every year.
Support for hypertension
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with hypertension, the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada offers resources and the opportunity to connect with others. As diabetes increases the risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack, Diabetes Canada has tips and dietary advice to help control hypertension. The Kidney Foundation is another good resource for people who are suffering from kidney issues related their high blood pressure.
Dave Yasvinski is a Toronto-based writer.