High Blood Pressure 101

Get the essential info on this potentially serious — yet highly treatable — condition.
High Blood Pressure 101

After joining Weight Watchers in May 2009 and dropping 25* pounds in five months, Angie of Chandler, AZ, was able to reduce her blood pressure (which, at its highest, was 150/95 mg/Hg) to the point where doctors cut her medication in half. Just a few weeks later, the 56-year-old was able to stop taking the medication completely.

After losing a total of 65* pounds, Angie is at her goal weight and has kept her blood pressure under control. In addition to eating a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and no fast food, which contains a lot of fat and sodium, “exercise helps me keep my blood pressure in check,” she says.

One in three Americans has high blood pressure — or hypertension — a condition that if left untreated can be deadly. Fortunately, weight loss, a healthy diet and exercise can help prevent it. If you already have high blood pressure, the condition can be managed by making these lifestyle changes, often in addition to taking medication.

What is high blood pressure?

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the flow of blood from your heart out to your body is exerting too much force on the artery walls.

Most people with hypertension don’t experience any symptoms, although headache may sometimes occur. “High blood pressure is the silent killer,” says Rachel K. Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, an American Heart Association (AHA) national spokesperson and the associate provost and professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Consequently, the AHA recommends getting your blood pressure checked by a health care provider once every two years, or more often if your doctor thinks it’s necessary. One high blood pressure result does not necessarily mean you have hypertension, so your doctor may take several readings over a period of time. You may also be asked to monitor your blood pressure at home.

Generally, a reading of 140/90 mm/Hg is categorized as hypertension. For more information on what your blood pressure levels mean, read our Learn the Lingo article.

Health consequences

Knowing whether you have hypertension is important because, over time, it can cause a number of serious complications.

“Blood pressure typically rises and falls over the course of the day,” says Johnson. However, “when it's elevated most of the time, it becomes dangerous because the heart is working too hard.” This, among other problems that can arise in the circulatory system, can contribute to heart failure.

Additionally, “high blood pressure can damage the artery walls,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine and medical director of New York University Women’s Heart Program and a national spokesperson for the AHA’s “Go Red” campaign.

This damage can encourage the buildup of cholesterol and plaque in the blood vessels. In turn, plaque build-up, or atherosclerosis, can lead to coronary artery disease and subsequent heart attack, ischemic stroke, and congestive heart failure.

Because the build-up of plaque means the arteries are less flexible or less able to expand, various organs and tissues may not be getting enough blood. This can lead to kidney disease, peripheral artery disease, and even blindness.

Hypertension can also overstretch and weaken the artery walls, which may cause them to rupture, leading to aneurysm or hemorrhagic stroke.

Other complications from high blood pressure include memory loss, angina, erectile dysfunction, aortic dissection, and fluid in the lungs.

The good news is, you can learn if you’re at risk of developing hypertension and what you can do to prevent the condition. If you’ve already been diagnosed, you can take a number of steps to keep your blood pressure under control.

*People following the Weight Watchers plan can expect to lose 1-2 lbs. per week.
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