High blood pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a common condition where the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels is consistently too high, which can cause other health problems like cardiovascular disease.

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Normal blood pressure vs. high blood pressure

When your heart beats, it creates pressure that pushes your blood through your circulatory system, including arteries, veins and capillaries. This blood pressure has two forces:

  • Systolic pressure occurs as blood pumps out of your heart and into your arteries.
  • Diastolic pressure is created as your heart rests between heart beats.

These two forces are represented by numbers in a blood pressure reading. A normal reading is “120 over 80” – or 120 systolic and 80 diastolic. When your heart pumps more blood and your arteries narrow, you will develop high blood pressure.

High blood pressure isn’t something that happens suddenly. It typically develops over many years.

Even though it normally doesn’t have any symptoms, hypertension is easily detected. Your primary care provider can help create a customized treatment plan with proven steps you can take to control it.

Causes of high blood pressure

There are two types of high blood pressure:

  • Primary, or essential, hypertension. The most common type, which tends to develop gradually over many years with no identifiable cause.
  • Secondary hypertension. Caused by an underlying condition, and tends to appear suddenly and cause higher blood pressure than primary hypertension.

Common underlying causes include:

  • Adrenal gland tumors.
  • Congenital defects in blood vessels.
  • Certain medications, including birth control pills, cold remedies, decongestants, over-the-counter pain (OTC) relievers and some prescription drugs.
  • Drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines.
  • Kidney and thyroid problems.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea.

Risk factors for high blood pressure

Activity level. People who lead a sedentary lifestyle are at greater risk of developing hypertension. Being physically active helps your heart and blood vessels stay strong and healthy, which may help lower your blood pressure. Regular physical activity can also help you keep a healthy weight, which may also help lower your blood pressure.

Age. Because your blood pressure tends to rise as you get older, your risk for high blood pressure increases with age. About 9 out of 10 Americans will develop high blood pressure during their lifetime.

Diet. A diet that is too high in sodium and too low in potassium puts you at risk for high blood pressure.

Family history. High blood pressure tends to run in families.

Obesity. Means your heart must work harder to pump blood and oxygen around your body.

Race or ethnicity. African Americans develop high blood pressure more often than white people, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians or Alaska Natives do.

Sex. Women are about as likely as men to develop high blood pressure at some point during their lives.

Tobacco use. Smoking can damage the heart and blood vessels.

Too much alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. Women should have no more than one drink per day. Men should have no more than two drinks per day.

Both men and women can develop high blood pressure.

Some other characteristics that you cannot control—such as your age, race or ethnicity—can affect your risk for high blood pressure.

When to see your primary care provider for high blood pressure

  • You’ll likely have your blood pressure taken as part of a routine doctor’s appointment.
  • Ask your doctor for a blood pressure reading at least every two years starting at age 18. If you’re age 40 or older, or you’re 18 to 39 with a high risk of high blood pressure, ask your doctor for a blood pressure reading every year.
  • Blood pressure generally should be checked in both arms to determine if there’s a difference. It’s important to use an appropriate-sized arm cuff.
  • Your doctor will likely recommend more frequent readings if you’ve already been diagnosed with high blood pressure or have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Children age 3 and older will usually have blood pressure measured as a part of their yearly checkups.
  • If you don’t regularly see your doctor, find out if free blood pressure screenings are available at a health resource fair or other locations in your community. You can also find machines in some stores that will measure your blood pressure for free.
  • Public blood pressure machines, such as those found in pharmacies, may provide helpful information about your blood pressure, but they may have some limitations. The accuracy of these machines depends on several factors, such as a correct cuff size and proper use of the machines. Ask your doctor for advice on using public blood pressure machines.

Complications from leaving high blood pressure untreated

The excessive pressure on your artery walls caused by high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels, as well as organs in your body. The higher your blood pressure and the longer it goes uncontrolled, the greater the damage.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to complications including:

Aneurysm. Increased blood pressure can cause your blood vessels to weaken and bulge, forming an aneurysm. If an aneurysm ruptures, it can be life threatening.

Dementia. Narrowed or blocked arteries can limit blood flow to the brain, leading to a certain type of dementia (vascular dementia). A stroke that interrupts blood flow to the brain also can cause vascular dementia.

Heart attack or stroke. High blood pressure can cause hardening and thickening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which can lead to a heart attack, stroke or other complications.

Heart failure. To pump blood against the higher pressure in your vessels, the heart has to work harder. This causes the walls of the heart’s pumping chamber to thicken (left ventricular hypertrophy). Eventually, the thickened muscle may have a hard time pumping enough blood to meet your body’s needs, which can lead to heart failure.

Metabolic syndrome. This syndrome is a cluster of disorders of your body’s metabolism, including increased waist circumference; high triglycerides; low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol); high blood pressure and high insulin levels. These conditions make you more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Thickened, narrowed or torn blood vessels in the eyes. This can result in vision loss.

Trouble with memory or understanding. Uncontrolled high blood pressure may also affect your ability to think, remember and learn. Trouble with memory or understanding concepts is more common in people with high blood pressure.

Weakened and narrowed blood vessels in your kidneys. This can prevent these organs from functioning normally.


Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). High Blood Pressure Symptoms and Causes (https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/about.htm)

National Institute of Aging (NIA). High Blood Pressure and Older Adults (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/high-blood-pressure-and-older-adults)

MedlinePlus: National Library of Medicine. High Blood Pressure (https://medlineplus.gov/highbloodpressure.html)