Why is high blood pressure so dangerous?

Reasons to keep healthy and track your blood pressure.

High blood pressure, the technical term is hypertension. High blood pressure is a common long term condition people can experience. It does not usually have noticeable symptoms. If left untreated or uncontrolled it can become dangerous as it increases your chances of certain conditions.

Blood pressure is measured both by the amount of blood the heart pumps against the amount of resistance to blood flow in the arteries. If your heart is pumping more blood, and your arteries are narrower, you will have higher blood pressure.

High blood pressure takes years to develop, however, it can be easily detected. Checking your blood pressure involved a simple test that can be carried out by your doctor. Having routine blood pressure checks can help you track any blood pressure changes. High blood pressure can present for years without symptoms, but this does not mean it is not causing any damage. The long-term strain the high blood pressure puts on the artery walls will eventually lead to health problems such as heart attack or stroke. If you know you have high blood pressure, you can work with your doctor and try and control it.

The normal range of blood pressure is between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg. High blood pressure is considered to be in the range of 140/90nnHg and higher. However, if you are over the age of 80, the threshold for high blood pressure is 150/90mmHg. 

Risk factors

There are many risk factors that are associated with high blood pressure:

  • Age - High blood pressure risk increases with age 
  • Race - High blood pressure is more prevalent in people of African heritage who often develop it at an earlier age
  • Family history - There tends to be a family history to high blood pressure
  • Overweight -  As your weight increases, the likelihood of developing high blood pressure increases as well
  • Smoking - Not only does smoking immediately raise blood pressure temporarily, but it also damages the lining of the arteries 
  • Salt - Too much salt intake, causes your body to retain fluid and thus it increases blood pressure
  • Stress - Stress causes a temporary spike in blood pressure. Always being under stress causes highly elevated blood pressure in your body.
  • Chronic conditions - some chronic conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea are also linked to high blood pressure. 

Dangers

High blood pressure can cause damage to a number of areas in the body: arteries, heart, brain, kidneys, eyes 

Arteries 

Arteries are strong, flexible, and elastic in nature, They have a smooth inner lining so blood can flow freely to vital organs and nutrients. High blood pressure increases the pressure of the blood flowing in the arteries. This may then result in:

  • Damaged and narrow arteries: The increased pressure of the blood can cause damage to the cell lining in the inner arteries. Fat can collect in these damaged arteries making the arteries less elastic. This limits the amount of blood flowing through the body.
  • Aneurysm: When blood is flowing through a weakened artery at constant high pressure, a section or the artery wall can become enlarged and form a bulge called an aneurysm. If the aneurysm ruptures it can cause internal bleeding which is life-threatening.

Heart

The problems high blood pressure can cause to the heart include: 

  • Coronary artery disease: The damaged and narrow arteries have trouble supplying the heart with blood. This prevents the free flow of blood to the heart and thus results in symptoms such as angina (chest pain), irregular heart rates (arrhythmias), or a heart attack. 
  • Enlarged left heart: Blood is pumped to the rest of the body via the left ventricle of the heart. With high blood pressure, the left ventricle needs to work harder and this the muscles start to thicken. This increases the risk of having a heart attack, heart failure or sudden cardiac death.
  • Heart failure: Over a course of time, the high blood pressure puts a strain on the heart. The muscles weaken and thus it works less efficiently. Over time the heart does not function properly and fails. 

Brain

The brain requires a healthy blood supply in order to function properly. High blood pressure can lead to several problems:

  • TIA (transient ischemic attack): This is sometimes referred to as a mini-stroke. It can cause a disruption to the blood flow to the brain, however, it is brief and temporary. The damage to the blood vessels leading to the brain due to high blood pressure can result in a TIA. TIA is a risk factor for getting a proper stroke. 
  • Stroke: When the brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients, it can cause brain cells to die. High blood pressure may also result in blood clots forming in the arteries leading to the brain, blocking blood flow, and may result in a stroke. 
  • Dementia: The narrowing or blockage of the blood vessels can lead to s specific type of dementia, called vascular dementia. If a stroke prevents blood flow to the brain it can also lead to vascular dementia.

Kidneys

Normally, there are 2 kidneys in the body responsible for filtering excess fluid and waste from the blood. In order to do this, the kidney needs healthy blood vessels. High blood pressure damages these vessels that lead to the kidney. If you have diabetes, in addition to high blood pressure, this can worsen the damage to the kidney. These problems include:

  • Kidney scarring (glomerulosclerosis): The tiny blood vessels in the kidney can become scarred and thus will not manage to do its job of filtering fluid and waste from the blood. This can then lead to kidney failure.
  • Kidney failure: Damage to the blood vessels leading to the kidneys can prevent the kidneys from doing its job and filtering the blood. This can cause waste to accumulate in the blood at dangerous levels. Ultimately, individuals will require kidney dialysis or kidney damage. 


Eyes

The eys contain tiny blood vessels that supply blood to the eye. High blood pressure damages these delicate vessels. This can then cause:

  • Nerve damage (optic neuropathy): The blood vessels in the eyes become blocked and can then damage the optic nerve which leads to bleeding and vision loss in the eyes 
  • Fluid buildup under the retina (choroidopathy): This can lead to distorted vision and scarring that leads to vision impairment.
  • Damage to the retina (retinopathy): Retina are light-sensitive tissues that are at the back of the eye. Damage to these can cause bleeding within the eye, blurred vision, and total vision loss. Those with diabetes as well as high blood pressure are at a higher risk of developing this.


Sexual dysfunction

Sometimes, men, have trouble maintaining an erection (erectile dysfunction). However, this becomes more likely in men with high blood pressure as there is limited blood flow to can block blood from flowing to the penis.

Women may experience sexual dysfunction as well due to the reduced blood flow to the vagina. This can reduce sexual libido, vaginal dryness, and trouble having an orgasm. 

Emergency

You might also experience a high blood pressure crisis. This happens when your blood pressure suddenly spikes quickly and severely. This constitutes a medical emergency and urgent medical care is needed and it usually results in hospitalization. Some of the symptoms of this emergency crisis is:

  • Blindness 
  • Heart attack 
  • Chest pain 
  • Memory loss, changes in personality, difficulty in concentrating, irritability, slow loss of consciousness
  • Stroke 
  • Aortic dissection
  • Loss of kidney function (sudden)

Make sure to take care of yourself if you are suffering from high blood pressure. There are many lifestyle changes and different medications that can help you control high blood pressure.

References:

Mayo Clinic, “How high blood pressure can affect your body.” in Mayo Clinic, , 2019, <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/in-depth/high-blood-pressure/art-20045868>.
‌NHS Choices, “Overview - High Blood Pressure (hypertension).” in NHS, , 2019, <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/high-blood-pressure-hypertension/>.
Mayo Clinic, “High blood pressure (hypertension) - Symptoms and causes.” in Mayo Clinic, , 2018, <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/symptoms-causes/syc-20373410>.

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