High blood pressure (your doctor might call it hypertension) is one of those health problems that can sneak up on you. You can have it for a long time without knowing it. Often, it doesn’t cause symptoms right away. But it can still lead to serious issues like heart attacks, congestive heart failure, and strokes. So it pays to know what can lead to it.
Your heart acts as a pump that pushes blood through your body. Blood pressure is the force your blood puts on your blood vessels as it flows. The higher your blood pressure, the higher the force. Without some pressure, your blood wouldn’t flow. It’d be like trying to blow up a balloon with blowing. But too much pressure and you’ll have problems.
You have high blood pressure if the top number is 140 or higher and if the bottom number is 90 or higher (referred to as 140 over 90, for example). Most of the time, doctors don’t know what causes hypertension, although it tends to come with age. Race and family history also may play a part. But some things raise your blood pressure:
Being overweight. As your weight goes up, so does the amount of blood you need. That puts more strain on your heart and more pressure on your blood vessels. This is partly why physical activity and a healthy diet are so important.
Little or no physical activity. When you don’t move much, you usually have a higher heart rate, which makes your heart pump harder with each heartbeat. But when you exercise, your body makes hormones that relax your blood vessels and lower your blood pressure.
Too much salt. Sodium, which is in salt, can boost your blood pressure because it plays a role in narrowing your blood vessels and makes your body hold on to more fluid. So it’s best to limit salt in your diet. You also need to get enough potassium, found in foods like bananas, potatoes, and yogurt. It helps to balance your sodium levels and keep your blood pressure in check.
Tobacco use. Cigarettes and chewing tobacco both raise your blood pressure while you’re smoking or chewing. Plus, chemicals in tobacco damage the inside of your blood vessels, which narrows them and leads to cholesterol plaques and heart attacks.
Alcohol use. Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart’s muscle. If you drink, it’s best to limit yourself. For healthy women, that means one drink a day. For healthy men, it’s two drinks a day up until age 65, then just one.
Stress. Chronic stress can cause problems for your blood pressure. Also, it often leads to behaviors such as smoking and drinking that also raise your blood pressure.
Certain health conditions can cause high blood pressure. This is one of the few times when the cause is clear. For example, certain conditions, such as sleep apnea, kidney disease, and thyroid problems, can cause high blood pressure. Sometimes, hypertension can happen during pregnancy and requires special treatment.
As your blood pressure climbs, your heart has to work harder to pump blood. Over time, that’s a problem because it’s like constantly flooring the gas pedal in your car — you’ll wear out your engine. Same with your heart.
Another problem is that your blood vessels are fragile and can only take so much force. Over time, the vessels get little tears in them, which is where plaque starts to collect.
As plaque builds up, your blood vessels narrow, so you have less room for blood to flow through. Your heart then has to pump harder, which creates even more pressure, and the cycle starts over.