What is high blood pressure and why is it so dangerous?
Should women be concerned about high blood pressure?
What causes high blood pressure?
What are the risk factors that contribute to high blood pressure?
How can I tell if I have high blood pressure/what signs should I look for?
How is blood pressure measured?
Can high blood pressure be prevented?
When I get my blood pressure checked in my health care provider's office it
is always sky high! Can I check my own blood pressure at home?
Do hormones affect blood pressure in women?
What medicines are used to treat high blood pressure?
Q: What is high blood pressure and why is it so dangerous?
As blood is pumped from your heart through your body, the blood puts force or pressure against the blood vessel (or artery) walls. Your blood pressure is a reading, or measure, of this pressure. When that reading goes above a certain point, it is called high blood pressure, another name for hypertension. When you have high blood pressure, it is partly because your blood vessels become narrower, forcing your heart to pump harder to move blood through your body. These changes cause the blood to press on the vessels walls with greater force.
High blood pressure is called the "silent killer" because it usually has no
signs or symptoms. It is dangerous because it makes the heart work too hard. If not
controlled over time, high blood pressure can affect not only your heart and blood vessels
but also other organs, making them function not as well as they should. The effects of
uncontrolled high blood pressure include:
- Stroke. High blood pressure is the most important risk factor for stroke. High blood pressure can cause a break in a weakened blood vessel in the brain. This can cause bleeding in the brain, which is a stroke. If a blood clot blocks a narrowed blood vessel, it can also cause
another type of stroke.
Impaired vision. Blood vessels in the eye can in time burst or bleed due
to high blood pressure. Vision can become blurred or impaired and can result in blindness.
Kidney damage. The kidneys filter wastes from our bodies. Over time,
high blood pressure can narrow and thicken the blood vessels of the kidneys. Thus the
kidneys can not do their job well, and wastes build up in the blood. When kidney failure
occurs, medical treatment (dialysis) or a kidney transplant is needed.
Heart attack. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart
attack. If the heart cannot get enough oxygen because of narrowed or hardened arteries,
chest pain (angina) can occur. If the flow of blood is blocked, a heart attack results.
Congestive heart failure. High blood pressure is the number one risk
factor for congestive heart failure, a serious condition where the heart is not able to
pump enough blood to meet the body's needs.
While high blood pressure can't be cured, in most cases, it can be prevented and
controlled with a healthy lifestyle and medication.
Q: Should women be concerned about high blood pressure?
More than half of all women over age 55 suffer from high blood pressure, or
hypertension. It is more common and more severe in black women. But this serious condition
affects many Americans. In fact, 1 in 4 American adults have high blood pressure.
High blood pressure causes 3 of every 5 cases of heart failure in women. It can also
lead to stroke, kidney failure, heart attack, and other health problems. Women who have
both diabetes and high blood pressure are at an even greater risk of stroke and kidney problems than are women who have only high blood pressure.
Q: What causes high blood pressure?
For the majority of people with high blood pressure, the cause is unknown. Narrowing of
the arteries, a greater than normal volume of blood, or the heart beating faster or more
forcefully than it should, will cause increased pressure against the artery walls. Why
this occurs in some people may not be clearly understood.
Less than ten percent of cases of high blood pressure are caused by other medical
problems or illnesses. This type of high blood pressure is often temporary, and cured when
the original medical problem is corrected.
Q: What are the risk factors that contribute to high blood pressure?
Risk factors are habits or traits that make a person more likely to develop a disease.
There are some risk factors for high blood pressure that you can do something about. Risk
factors that you can reduce include a high sodium (salt) intake and obesity (being overweight). A sedentary lifestyle - being inactive and not exercising regularly - can increase a person's chances for high blood pressure. Heavy drinking of alcohol will raise blood pressure. If you do
drink alcohol, try not to drink more than 1 drink per day for women. If you are pregnant,
you should not drink at all.
There are some risk factors for high blood pressure that you can't change. Heredity is
one of these factors because high blood pressure tends to run in families. Racial
background is another factor. Blacks are more likely to have high blood pressure than
whites. Gender also plays a role in high blood pressure risk. Men have a greater risk of
high blood pressure than do women up until age 55, then the risks become similar for men
and women. At age 75 and older, women are more likely than men to have high blood
pressure. Age is a risk factor for both women and men. Blood pressure tends to increase
with age, and older people are more likely to have high blood pressure than younger
Q: How can I tell if I have high blood pressure, and what are thes signs I should be looking for?
High blood pressure - the "silent" killer - does not have any signs. That is
why it is so important to have your blood pressure checked regularly by a health care
Q: How is blood pressure measured?
Blood pressure is a measure of the force of blood pumped from the heart against the
walls of your arteries (or blood vessels). It reflects how high the pressure in your
arteries is to raise a column of mercury (similar to the way your temperature raises
mercury in a thermometer), and is recorded as millimeters of mercury (mmHg).
Blood pressure is read as two numbers: a top number (systolic pressure), or the
pressure of blood in the vessels as the heartbeats; and a bottom number (diastolic
pressure), or the pressure of the blood between heartbeats. Although the average blood
pressure reading for adults is 120/80, a slightly higher or lower reading (for either
number) may not be a problem. If you have heart disease or major risk factors such as
smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, family history of heart disease or high blood pressure, or have gone through menopause (stopped having periods), your health care provider will help you aim for a lower blood pressure.
High blood pressure (or hypertension) in adults is defined as blood pressure that
consistently exceeds 140/90 normally. Ask your health care provider to tell you what your
blood pressure number is and what this means to you. Talk with your health care provider
about ways to prevent, and if needed, to lower your blood pressure and about how often you
need to have your blood pressure rechecked.
Many older people develop a form of high blood pressure called isolated systolic
hypertension (ISH), which occurs when the top (systolic) number is high but the
bottom (diastolic) number is normal. This type of high blood pressure also requires
monitoring and treatment by your health care provider.
Blood Pressure* Categories in Women
(for women 18 years and older,
who are not taking antihypertensive drugs,
and are not acutely ill)
||less than 120
||less than 80
||less than 130
||less than 85
(High blood pressure)
||180 or higher
||110 or higher
*Blood pressure level in mmHG
Q: Can high blood pressure be prevented?
If you have high blood pressure, you can lower it and control it with proper treatment.
If you don't have high blood pressure now, you can take steps to prevent it from
developing. You can help to control and prevent high blood pressure by
taking the following steps:
Control your weight, or lose weight if you are overweight. Losing even
ten pounds will help.
Exercise regularly - 30 minutes a day for most days of the week is best.
Limit your daily intake of sodium to less than 2,400 mg (about 1
teaspoon of salt). Sodium is found in many packaged foods, carbonated beverages, baking
soda, and some antacids. Read product labels so you know what you are eating. If you would
like to try a salt substitute, talk with your health care provider first, because they are
not safe for everyone.
Have a diet that includes more fruits and vegetables, and low fat or
nonfat dairy products, and limited amounts of saturated fat and total fat.
Eat foods that are rich in potassium since potassium seems to prevent
high blood pressure. Aim to have more than 3,500 mg of potassium per day.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. No more than one serving per
day for women (e.g. 12 oz. beer or 5 oz. wine), and no more than two servings per day for
most men (e.g. 24 oz. beer or 10 oz wine).
If you are prescribed high blood pressure medication, take it exactly as
prescribed so it works properly. Don't forget to talk with your health care provider about
other medications - both over-the-counter and prescription - that you are taking to make
sure they do not interfere with the blood pressure medication. Ask questions about what
types of over-the-counter medications you can take before you take them. Bring all of your
medication, even those you buy over the counter, to your visit with your health care
If you are pregnant, get regular prenatal checkups so your health care
provider can find and control a possible high blood pressure problem.
If you are taking birth control pills, estrogen, or hormone therapy (HRT), get regular blood pressure checks from your health care provider to find and control a blood pressure problem.
Talk with your health care provider if you need help with these steps or have any
questions or concerns.
Q: When I get my blood pressure checked in my health care provider's office, it is always sky high. Can I check my own blood pressure at home?
Some people have high blood pressure only when they visit their health care provider's
office. This condition is called white coat hypertension. If your health care
provider thinks you may have this condition, you may be asked to wear a device called an ambulatory blood pressure monitor. It is usually worn for 24 hours in order to get an accurate understanding of your blood pressure.
There are over-the-counter blood pressure measuring devices you can purchase in
pharmacies and discount chain stores that you can use at home. These include the blood
pressure cuff and a stethoscope and electronic monitors, such as digital readout monitors.
Always be sure the person who will use the device reads the instructions before taking
blood pressure readings. Your health care provider or pharmacist can help you check the
device and teach you how to use it. You can also ask for their help in choosing the right
type of blood pressure device for you. If you take your blood pressure at home, keep a
record of the numbers and take them with you each time you see your health care provider.
Here are some tips for what you can do to ensure as accurate a blood pressure reading
Don't drink coffee or smoke for 30 minutes before the blood pressure
Before your blood pressure is checked, sit still for five minutes with
your back supported and your feet flat on the ground. Try to rest your arm on a table at
the level of your heart.
Go to the bathroom prior to the reading. A full bladder can change your
blood pressure reading.
Get two readings, taken at least two minutes apart, and average the
If you are having your blood pressure taken by a health care provider, ask for the
blood pressure numbers. You can also ask to compare the numbers to the ones taken during
your last visit.
Q: Do hormones affect blood pressure in women?
Taking estrogen, either through birth control pills or through hormone therapy (HT),
can affect a woman's blood pressure. Women taking birth control pills can have a small and
most often normal increase in their blood pressure reading. Talk to your health care
provider about what you can do if your blood pressure goes up when taking the pill. Age
(35 and older), length of use, and smoking are all thought to increase the risk for high
blood pressure in women taking birth control pills. When you take birth control pills, be
sure to have your blood pressure checked regularly. If you are taking birth control pills
and have high blood pressure, talk with your health care provider about another method of
While not usual, women may see a rise in blood pressure due to taking estrogen or
hormone therapy (HT). All women taking estrogen or HT need to have their blood pressure
checked regularly. In the past, taking HT was thought to help protect women against heart
disease. But recent findings from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) study, sponsored by
the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), showed that taking HT poses more
risks than benefits for a woman's heart health. The study found that HT could increase a
woman's risk for heart disease, stroke, and pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the
lung), as well as breast cancer. Because of these findings, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women who have gone through menopause should not be given HT to prevent heart disease and other chronic conditions. Hormones also are not recommended for women with heart disease or for women who have had a stroke. If you have gone through menopause, talk with your health care provider about whether hormones are right for you.
During pregnancy, a woman can develop high blood pressure, which goes away when the
baby is born. This is called gestational hypertension. Women who have high blood
pressure before getting pregnant are more likely to have certain problems, such as preeclampsia, or toxemia, which can threaten the lives of both the mother and the fetus. Talk to your health care provider if you have high blood pressure and are thinking of having a baby. Prenatal care will be especially important for you.
Q: What medicines are used to treat high blood pressure?
For some people, lifestyle changes are enough to lower blood pressure. For others,
particularly those with heart disease, medication may also be required. If you do require
medication, make sure you continue your lifestyle changes. These changes help the
medications work better, and over time, you may be able to reduce the medication.
There are many different types of blood pressure medications that work in different
ways. You may be prescribed one or a combination of several drugs to help lower your blood
pressure. Diuretics (or water pills) reduce the amount of fluid in the body. Beta
blockers help the heart to beat less often and with less force. Alpha blockers
relax blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more easily. Alpha-beta blockers work
the same way alpha blockers do but also slow the heartbeat, as beta-blockers do. Vasodilators open blood vessels by relaxing the muscle in the vessel walls. Calcium channel blockers (CCBs) prevent calcium from getting into the muscle cells of the heart and
blood vessels, relaxing the blood vessels. A somewhat new type of high blood pressure
drug, called angiotensin antagonists, helps prevent the blood vessels from
When you are prescribed medication, you may need to take it for a short or long time
period. Be sure that you understand your health care provider's directions on how to take
the drug. Know the amount you should take, if you should take it each day, and what
time(s) you should take it during the day. If you are not sure about how to take the
medicine, contact your health care provider. Write down the directions and keep them in a
Bear in mind that blood pressure medications may not work the same for everyone, so you
may need to try a few of them before you find the one that works best for you. Likewise,
different dosages (or amounts) of a drug can affect people differently. Your health care
provider may also need to adjust, or change, the drug's dosage for you. It may take some
time to find the best medication and best dosage for you.
Some over-the-counter medications or natural supplements may worsen blood pressure or
interfere with prescription medications. You should inform your health care provider if
you are regularly taking any over-the-counter medications. If you have any questions about
whether you can take an over-the-counter medication when you are taking blood pressure
medication, talk with your health care provider before you take the drug. Also, be sure to
inform your health care provider about any other prescribed medications you are taking.
It is important to talk with your health care provider right away if you are having any
problems with your medication. If you think you are having a side effect, do not stop
taking the drug. Talk with your health care provider right away and she or he will give
you advice about what to do.
For more information...
You can find out more about high blood pressure by contacting the National Women's
Health Information Center (NWHIC) at (800) 994-9662 or the following organizations:
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
Phone Number(s): (301) 592-8573
National High Blood Pressure Education Program
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
The Heart Truth
National Awareness Campaign for Women about Heart Disease
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
Phone Number(s): (800) 575-9355
American Heart Association
Phone Number(s): (800) 793-2665
American College of Cardiology
Phone Number(s): (800) 253-4636
Texas Heart Institute
Phone Number(s): (800) 292-2221