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High Blood Pressure: Key Q&A

Reviewed By: Abdou Elhendy, MD, PhD, FACC, FAHA

Why is there so much concern about high blood pressure?
High blood pressure stresses the heart and can contribute to coronary artery disease, heart attack and stroke.

When is blood pressure considered "high"?
Blood pressure is expressed as a ratio of systolic pressure over diastolic pressure. Normal blood pressure for adults is considered to be below 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg). In general, blood pressure above 140/90 is considered to be high for adults, and blood pressure under 90/60 is considered to be low for adults.

What is prehypertension?
Prehypertension is a new category for individuals with systolic pressures of 120 to 139 mmHg and/or diastolic pressures of 80 to 89 mmHg. Such individuals are typically not prescribed medication, but they are advised to adopt lifestyle modifications to help keep blood pressure from rising. Lifestyle modifications might include weight loss, diet, exercise, reducing salt intake and quitting smoking.

Can high blood pressure damage the body?
Untreated, high blood pressure will cause the heart to overwork itself to the point where eventually serious damage can occur. For example, the heart muscle can thicken and begin to function abnormally, or dilate and contract less forcefully. High blood pressure can cause injury to the brain, the eyes and/or the kidneys.

Does taking birth control pills affect the risk of high blood pressure?
Taking birth control pills does put you at increased risk for high blood pressure, especially if you are over age 35. High blood pressure is typically two to three times more common in women taking birth control pills than those not taking them. The risk is especially high in women who take the pill and are overweight or obese.

How many people have high blood pressure?
High blood pressure is a major health problem in the United States, where more than 50 million people over age six (and one in four adults) have the condition, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Who is at risk for high blood pressure?
High blood pressure is not evenly distributed throughout the population. Until age 55, it is more common among men than women. At age 75 and beyond, it is much more common among women than men. High blood pressure also occurs frequently in the black community. Black women, especially, are prone to high blood pressure. They have an 85 percent higher rate of medical care visits for high blood pressure than white women.

Can I be at risk for high blood pressure if I haven't had a heart attack or stroke?
High blood pressure is present in about half of people having first-time heart attacks and two-thirds of those having first-time strokes. Most cases of high blood pressure have no cure, but the overwhelming majority can be managed and controlled with diet and medication.

Is there any relationship between pregnancy and high blood pressure?
During pregnancy, some women may develop high blood pressure even if they have never had the condition before. This gestational hypertension has been shown to increase the risk of high blood pressure and stroke later on in life. Some women who already have high blood pressure may see it worsen during pregnancy. Also, preeclampsia, a condition related to high blood pressure and the presence of protein in a pregnant woman's urine, is the second leading cause of maternal death in the United States.

Can high blood pressure occur in children?
High blood pressure may occur in either adults or children. In fact, high blood pressure in children appears to be increasing, and an estimated 5 percent of children in the United States have it. Unlike for adults, there is no exact range used to define high blood pressure in children. Children's blood pressure readings are measured according to their height, gender and age. A child with high blood pressure should be examined for other potential causes, such as coarctation of the aorta or kidney diseases.

Is there any way I can check my blood pressure at home?
Reliable blood pressure monitors are available for people who are interested in monitoring their own blood pressure or that of their family members. When purchasing, it is important to consult with a doctor or a consumer product rating agency regarding their reliability.

Is it possible for my blood pressure to go too low?
Low blood pressure is defined as blood pressure that falls below 90/60. Low blood pressure that does not cause symptoms is generally considered to be a sign of good cardiovascular health because there is less stress on the heart and blood vessels.



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