When the heart contracts and forces blood into the arteries it creates a pressure called ‘blood pressure ’. Every living person has a blood pressure, and it is this pressure that allows the blood to circulate around the body. Blood pressure varies throughout the day, going up during times of activity and going down when you are relaxed. Hypertension is the name given to the condition when the blood pressure is persistently high. The high pressure puts an excess strain on the heart, blood vessels, kidneys and other organs and increases the risk of developing heart attacks, strokes and kidney damage.
How Do You Measure Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is measured usually using an instrument called a sphygmomanometer or by an electronic device. These instruments allow two readings to be taken of the pressure of the blood in the arteries – one when the heart contracts, called the systolic pressure and one when the heart relaxes, called the diastolic pressure. The pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury, written as mmHg (Hg is the chemical symbol for mercury), and is recorded as systolic pressure/diastolic pressure. Hypertension or high blood pressure is defined as a systolic pressure of 140 mmHg or greater, or a diastolic pressure of 90 mmHg or greater, which is written as 140/90.
As blood pressure is influenced by a number of factors, a diagnosis of hypertension should only be made after two readings have been taken on at least two separate occasions with the person sitting down and relaxed.
Hypertension is very common, affecting up to 1 in 4 of the adult population of the UK. A small number of people have what is called secondary hypertension, which means that there is an underlying cause of their high blood pressure. However, for most people there is no definite cause for their high blood pressure and doctors call this primary or essential hypertension. Some groups of people with certain lifestyles or hereditary factors are more likely to develop hypertension. These include:
- Those with a family history of high blood pressure
- Men - men are more likely to develop hypertension than women
- Ethnicity - black African, Caribbean and people from the Indian sub-continent are more likely to develop hypertension
- Those with an unhealthy lifestyle - if you are overweight, eat too much salt and not enough fruits and vegetables, take little exercise, drink too much alcohol and caffeine or smoke you are more likely to have high blood pressure
- Older people - blood pressure tends to rise as you get older
- Those who suffer from stress
Usually the only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have it measured. Most people cannot tell if their blood pressure is high any other way. It is recommended that all adults should have their blood pressure measured at least every 5 years. Those with high normal values or with other risk factors such as diabetes or smoking should be measured at least annually.
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High blood pressure is not usually something that you can cure, but it can be treated. Everyone should make lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking, losing weight, cutting down the level of saturated fats in the diet, eating at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each day, taking regular exercise and limiting alcohol and caffeine intake. Some people may be able get their blood pressure down by life
- Give up smoking - see give up smoking section
- Cut down on the amount of salt you eat - no more than 5 grams a day.
- Don't add salt to food at the table or in cooking
- Avoid eating salty, processed foods
- Keep alcohol intake below the recommended limits
- If overweight try to shed a few pounds
- Eat a diet low in saturated fat and high in fibre
- Take regular exercise