Hypertension: the Essential
Heart disease, a disease of the vessels that carry blood to the heart, is the number one cause of death in the United States. There are many risk factors that contribute to the development of heart disease, and one of the most common is hypertension, or high blood pressure. Nearly one-third of Americans have a diagnosis of high blood pressure. Statistics show that Hispanics and Latinos have lower rates than other racial and ethnic groups, but they are also less likely to be taking the recommended medications to help control it. Uncontrolled hypertension increases the risk of serious complications, including stroke, kidney disease, heart disease, and heart attacks. In order to avoid these consequences, it is important to understand what hypertension is and how to prevent and control it.
Blood pressure is a measure of the amount of force that your heart is creating to push blood through your blood vessels. This force puts pressure on the walls of the blood vessels, and normal vessels have elastic tissue that allows them to stretch appropriately. But if the force is too high, the vessels will be stretched beyond their normal limit, and over time this can cause permanent weakness and scarring. Scarred vessels lose their ability to stretch and the heart has to work much harder to pump blood through them, which can cause heart failure. Weakened vessels are also more likely to rupture or form blood clots, possibly resulting in strokes and heart attacks. And damaged, narrowed vessels prevent tissues from getting enough oxygen, causing damage to organs like the kidneys, eyes, and brain.
Though hypertension has many serious long term complications, many patients do not know that they have it because it has no symptoms or warning signs. This is why it is often called “the silent killer.” It is important to diagnose and treat this disease as early as possible, and fortunately, this is easy to do. Blood pressure can be measured at the doctor’s office or on machines in local pharmacies. Normal blood pressure is a measurement below 120/80. A person receives a diagnosis of hypertension if they have a blood pressure measurement at or above 140/90 on two or more separate occasions. Measurements between 120/80 and 139/89 are called pre-hypertension and should also be noted.
There are a number of things you can do on your own to both prevent and treat hypertension. Following a heart healthy diet is an important step. This is a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats and fish while limiting red meat, sugar, and salt. Alcohol intake should also be limited to one drink per day for women and two for men. Other important lifestyle modifications include thirty minutes of physical activity at least five times per week, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding tobacco products. Often these lifestyle changes alone are used to treat patients with pressures in the pre-hypertension range. Even if your blood pressure is in the normal range, these changes can prevent or delay the development of hypertension and decrease the risk of its complications. It is also helpful to monitor your blood pressure measurements by checking it periodically at pharmacy stations.
If your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher, you will also likely need medications prescribed by a doctor to control your hypertension. In this case it is very important to have a detailed discussion with your doctor about how the medications should be taken. It is also important to continue the lifestyle modifications because they can enhance the effectiveness of your medications and continue to lower your risk of complications. Though most of the negative effects of high blood pressure take years to develop, it is possible to have a sudden increase in blood pressure with associated symptoms, called hypertensive urgency. If, while monitoring your blood pressure, you have a reading at or above180/110, wait a couple of minutes and take it again. If the next reading is still at or above these levels, it is important that you seek immediate emergency medical treatment. At these levels immediate organ damage may occur and you must be treated as soon as possible.
Hypertension is one of the most common diseases in the United States, as well as one of the most treatable. Because it is often asymptomatic and complications take years to develop, awareness is crucial in its prevention and management. There is a lot that individuals can do to decrease their risk, and it is important that you and your health care provider work together to meet these goals.
For more information: www.heart.org
- American Heart Association. High Blood Pressure. www.heart.org. January 2, 2013.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among US Hispanics. http://www.cdc.gov/features/millionheartshispanic/. April 22, 2013.
- Million Hearts. About Heart Disease and Stroke. http://millionhearts.hhs.gov/about_hd.html.
- UptoDate. Patient information: High blood pressure and adults. Uptodate.com.
Ashley Slaughter is a native of Rochester, NY and a fourth year medical student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. She is planning to pursue a career in general surgery and enjoys yoga, cooking, and movies. She is a member of the Latino Medical Student Association, a national organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for the health needs of the Latino community. LMSA members, including herself, are looking forward to continuing to contribute to CNY Latino and raising awareness regarding the many health issues affecting the Latinos of Central NY and beyond.