High blood pressure can seem a little mysterious—there are usually no obvious causes or symptoms. But the risks are clear. Here’s why it happens (even to otherwise healthy people) and how to protect against it.
YOUR HEART has a big job to do. In order to deliver oxygen from head to toe, it must carefully regulate the force it uses to push blood through your arteries. That force, which is also known as blood pressure, fluctuates throughout your lifetime, and even throughout the day. But when the pressure becomes higher than normal and stays that way for too long, the extra strain can damage your artery walls: Picture a rushing river eroding its banks or a blown-up balloon stretched too thin.
One in three American adults has chronically high blood pressure, or hypertension. Only about half are being effectively treated, and many don’t even know they have the condition until something serious— like a heart attack or stroke— happens without warning. “The phrase ‘silent killer’ may sound ominous, but it’s pretty accurate,” says Florian Rader, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute in Los Angeles.
To make matters worse, another one-third of adults are at risk of developing hypertension in the near future. The news isn’t all scary, though. The silver lining is that high blood pressure can be managed or even avoided altogether.
By the Numbers
Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury, or mmHg, and there are two numbers to monitor: The top one indicates systolic pressure, measured while the heart is pumping blood out, into the vessels. The bottom number is the diastolic pressure, measured while the heart is relaxing between beats and blood is flowing back in.
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