High blood pressure (hypertension) is often termed the ‘silent killer’ because at the outset you may not even know that you have it. With time, hypertension will cause significant cardiovascular damage, affecting the heart and blood vessels and increasing the workload or affect the functioning of the heart. This can present as a number of different conditions collectively called heart disease.
What is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the amount of force that blood exerts within the blood vessels as it is propelled by the heart, a muscular pump. This pressure is necessary for blood to travel from the heart to all tissues within the body and return to the heart. Blood carries vital nutrients and oxygen to the cells of the body. It also transports carbon dioxide and wastes for excretion. Once the transport system of blood is hampered, a range of symptoms may present itself and prolonged changes in blood pressure can lead to chronic heart disease.
Blood pressure changes constantly with heart activity. At the time of contraction of the heart (systolic), the blood pressure increases and when the heart relaxes (diastolic), the blood pressure drops. Blood pressure is measured in mm.Hg (milimetre/mercury) and a healthy systolic blood pressure is considered to be approximately 120 mm.Hg while an acceptable diastolic pressure will be around 80 mm.Hg. If you have heard your doctor or nurse say that your blood pressure is “120 over 80” or 120/80 mm.Hg, the first figure simply indicates your systolic pressure, while the second indicates your diastolic pressure. Although a blood pressure of 120/80 mm.Hg is accepted globally as an average healthy and normal blood pressure, there may be slight changes depending on individual cases.
Young women who are anemic (low blood iron levels) are known to have a blood pressure lower than the normal (hypotension) while the elderly may experience an increase in their systolic pressure with age. These situations are accepted as the norm for the age and predisposing conditions. However, once the diastolic pressure persists at a pressure over 90 mm.Hg, medical intervention is required. It is important to consult with a medical doctor to get appropriate advice on your blood pressure and self diagnosis or management without medical supervision can be dangerous.
The problem of hypertension and heart disease is rapidly growing in South Africa and is closely linked to obesity, poor dietary habits, inactivity and diabetes. Poor management of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease can lead to a heart attack, stroke or even death.
Symptoms of Hypertension
Usually symptoms of hypertension are only noticed late in the condition after months or years of uncontrolled high blood pressure. In most cases, no symptoms are noticed or the symptoms may be due to other conditions other than hypertension. Some symptoms of hypertension include :
- Dizziness or light headed
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty breathing
- Blood in the urine
- Severe tiredness (fatigue)
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms and suffer with hypertension, it is important to seek medical attention.
Risk Factors & Causes of High Blood Pressure
It is known that certain risk factors are likely to eventually lead to high blood pressure. These include :
- Being overweight or obese
- Excessive alcohol consumption or alcohol abuse
- High intake of salt
- Family history
- Nutritional deficiencies like low vitamin D intake
- Lack of physical activity
- High blood cholesterol levels
- Uncontrolled diabetes
The exact cause of primary hypertension which accounts for most cases of high blood pressure is unknown. In secondary hypertension, the elevated blood pressure may occur as a result of other disorders like those affecting the liver, kidney or the blood vessels.
Treatment of Hypertension
The treatment and management of high blood pressure should always be supervised by a medical doctor. Proper management will reduce the risk of heart attacks or a stroke and limit the extent of any heart disease. While a good diet, weight loss and exercise will assist with the management of high blood pressure, in many cases, drug therapy is still required. Your doctor will take many factors into consideration before prescribing the appropriate medication and dosage and this should not be altered without medical supervision.
Heart disease is a broad term used to describe a number of conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. This can involve enlargening of the heart, narrowing of the blood vessels, problems with the rhythmic beating of the heart and reduced blood supply to the heart.
Some common terms used in connection with heart disease include :
- Angina is the episodes of reduced blood flow to the muscles of the heart causing a characteristic chest pain. This often occurs as a result of a single or multiple blockages of the blood vessels supplying the heart.
- Cardiac failure or heart failure is a broad term indicating that the heart is failing to pump blood effectively. A number of conditions may result in cardiac failure, some causing sudden death while others persist and progress over years.
- Heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI) is when a portion of the muscle has been damaged due to a lack of oxygen. If only a small area of heart muscle is affected, the heart attack may not be fatal as the rest of the heart muscle accommodates for the shortfalls of the damaged muscle. If large areas of the heart muscle is affected or if there are repeated attacks, the heart may not be able to perform its function and death will occur.
- Arrhythmia is an alteration of the heart beat either in time or force of the beat.
- Heart murmur is a distinctive sound noticed due to a heart abnormality often associated with dysfunction of the heart valves.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure and diabetes are some of the most common causes of heart disease and should always be treated and controlled from an early stage.
The key to tackling the growing problem of heart disease and high blood pressure should focus on preventing these diseases. Healthy living (diet, exercise and stress management), regular cardiovascular examinations by a physician or cardiologist if you are over 40 years of age and vigilance about addressing these conditions at the outset will often limit the extent of the disease and prevent life threatening complications in the future.