To understand this, think of a water pump and hose. When you turn the pump on, it pushes water into the hose, creating pressure against the inner walls of the hose and causing the water to flow. Now, if you interrupt the flow of water—for example, by putting a bend in the hose—you create a blockage that stops up the water. The water will build up behind the blockage, exerting more pressure and pushing out the walls of the hose. If you keep the hose bent, eventually either the hose will burst or the pump will shut down. If you get rid of the blockage, water will once again flow smoothly through the hose.
You can think of high blood pressure, or hypertension, in the same way. It is a condition in which the pressure of the blood inside the arteries is too high. If the condition is left untreated, it will cause damage to the arteries and put strain on the heart. You can develop serious complications of high blood pressure, including stroke, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney failure, and eyesight problems or even blindness. Developing these and other related illnesses can lead to a life of considerable suffering or premature death.
Sadly, millions of Americans are walking around with high blood pressure and don’t even know it. It seems that most people find out they have the disorder only when their doctors bring it to their attention during an office visit. This is due to the fact that there are no clear-cut symptoms of high blood pressure—which is part of the reason it has become known as “the silent killer.”
One basic marker that people can use to keep tabs on their blood pressure is their age. As people grow older, their chance of developing the condition becomes greater. Health experts have determined that roughly 54% of people over 60 have high blood pressure and that two out of three Americans will have it by the age of 70. For this simple fact alone, it is important for people to become more aware of their blood pressure, have it measured periodically, and learn healthy ways to prevent or control this potentially deadly condition.
High blood pressure does not affect all people in the same way. African Americans and older people are particularly hard hit by the disorder. Those with lower incomes and lower educational backgrounds also tend to be at greater risk for developing high blood pressure.
In addition, research studies have shown that people living in the southeastern United States have average blood pressure levels that are higher than Americans living in other parts of the country. The exact reasons for this still remain unclear. What is clear is that people can take many actions to reduce their chances of developing high blood pressure. This involves having blood pressure checked regularly, since high blood pressure is simple to detect, and making changes in lifestyle, such as increasing physical activity, reducing the amount of salt consumed, and committing to a lifetime of healthier eating.
For those suffering from high blood pressure, medical science and modern research since the 1940s and 1950s have come a long way in understanding and treating this silent condition. Many medications have been developed and proven effective in helping to get blood pressure levels under control, to limit or avoid further complications, and to prolong life.