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High Blood Pressure

What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of blood as it moves through the blood vessels. If blood cannot flow easily through the vessels, the force increases. If the force is too great, you have high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is a serious disease.  It increases the workload on the heart and blood vessels and can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney problems and even blindness.

The medical term for high blood pressure is hypertension.  High blood pressure is dangerous because it makes the heart work too hard and contributes to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).  It increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, the first and third leading causes of death among Americans.

How can I tell if I have high blood pressure?

High blood pressure usually has no symptoms.  In fact, many people have high blood pressure for years without knowing it.  That’s why it’s called the “silent killer”.  In 90-95 percent of cases, the cause of high blood pressure is unknown.

A single elevated blood pressure reading doesn’t mean you have high blood pressure, but it’s a sign that further observation is required.  The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to have your blood pressure checked.

Who is affected?

High blood pressure affects approximately 48% of American adults.  It is especially common among non-Hispanic Black adults, who tend to develop it earlier and more often than Whites.  Also, many Americans tend to develop high blood pressure as they get older; however, hypertension is not a part of healthy aging. About 63 percent of Americans 60 years of age and older have high blood pressure.

Others at high risk of developing hypertension are persons who are overweight, not physically active, consume a high sodium diet, drink too much alcohol, and have a family history of high blood pressure.

Others at high risk of developing hypertension are persons who are overweight, those with a family history of high blood pressure, and those with a high-normal blood pressure.

Does smoking tobacco cause high blood pressure?

Smoking tobacco can temporarily raise blood pressure, and it does increase the risk of heart and blood vessel diseases.

Smoking injures blood vessel walls and accelerates the process of hardening of the arteries.  If you smoke, it is best to quit.  Your risk of having a heart attack is reduced after the first year.

Smoking injures blood vessel walls and speeds up the process of hardening of the arteries.  If you smoke, quit.  Your risk of having a heart attack is reduced after the first year.

What do blood pressure numbers indicate?

The higher (systolic) number represents the pressure while the heart is beating.

The lower (diastolic) number represents the pressure when the heart is resting between beats.

The systolic pressure is always stated first and the diastolic pressure second.  For example; if a person’s blood pressure is 122/76 (122 over 76), the systolic pressure is 122 and the diastolic pressure is 76.

Categories for blood pressure levels in adults*

Blood Pressure Category SYSTOLIC mm Hg (upper number) and/or DIASTOLIC mm Hg (lower number)






120 - 129



High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) Stage 1

130 - 139


80 – 89

High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) Stage 2




Hypertensive Crisis (consult your doctor immediately)




How often should I have my blood pressure checked?

If you do not have high blood pressure then you should have your pressure checked at least every two years.  If you have high blood pressure consult with your health care provider.

What are Factors that contribute to high blood pressure?

Below are of several factors that can put you at higher risk for developing high blood pressure, and heart attack, and stroke.

Controllable risk factors?

  • Obesity - People with a body mass index (BMI)* of 30.0 or higher are more likely to develop high blood pressure.
  • Eating too much salt - This increases blood pressure in some people.
  • Alcohol - Heavy and regular use of alcohol can increase blood pressure dramatically.
  • Lack of exercise - An inactive lifestyle makes it easier to become overweight and increases the chance of high blood pressure.
  • Stress - This is often mentioned as a risk factor.  However, stress levels are hard to measure, and responses to stress vary from person to person.
  • Sleep apnea- otherwise known as obstructive sleep apnea may increase the risk of developing high blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol - more than half of individuals with high blood pressure also have high cholesterol.
  • Smoking – using tobacco can cause your blood pressure to temporarily increase and can cause damage to arteries.

What are uncontrollable risk factors?

  • Race -   African Americans develop high blood pressure more often than whites, and it tends to occur earlier and be more severe.
  • Heredity -   A tendency to have high blood pressure runs in families.  If your parents or other close blood relatives have it, you’re more likely to develop it.
  • Age -   In general, the older you get, the greater your chance of developing high blood pressure.  It occurs most often in people over age 35.  Men seem to develop it most often between age 35 and 50.  Women are more likely to develop it after menopause. 

*BMI (body mass index) is used to define nutritional status and is derived from the following formula:
BMI = 703 x Body Weight (in pounds) divided by (Height  x  Height) (in inches)
The standards are the same for men and women.  A BMI of  25 to 29.9 is considered overweight.