It’s often called the “silent killer,” and it strikes the African-American community more than any other race or ethnic group. People who have this disease don’t feel sick. And yet, they are at high risk for serious health problems. What is this disease? High blood pressure (also called hypertension).
In this country, 50 million people have high blood pressure, and an estimated 46% are not receiving treatment. African-Americans develop high blood pressure at an earlier age and are more likely to have much higher blood pressure levels. In fact, more than 40% of black men and women age 20 and older have high blood pressure.
High blood pressure needs to be taken very seriously. If it is not controlled, it can lead to many serious health problems including heart disease, kidney disease, hardening of the arteries, eye damage, stroke, and other disorders. The longer you have high blood pressure, the greater the risk. African-Americans suffer from the complications of hypertension at very high rates, and are much more likely to die from the consequences of high blood pressure than the general public.
What is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against your blood vessels. Your blood pressure is at its greatest when your heart contracts and is pumping blood. This is systolic blood pressure. When your heart rests between beats, your blood pressure falls. This is called diastolic blood pressure. Blood pressure is always given as these two numbers: the systolic and diastolic pressures. The numbers are usually written one above or before the other, with systolic first, for example, 120/80.
High blood pressure means high pressure (tension) in the arteries. Normal blood pressure is below 120/80; blood pressure in the range of 120-139/80-89 is called “pre-hypertension,” and blood pressure of 140/90 or above is considered high.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
In most cases, the exact cause of hypertension is not known. A combination of factors—genetics (especially for African-Americans), diet, and lifestyle—plays a large role in the development of high blood pressure. Other factors that can affect blood pressure include the volume of water in the body; salt content of the body; condition of the kidneys, nervous system, or blood vessels; and various hormone levels in the body. About 95% of blood pressure has no known cause. The remaining 5% is related to existing health problems, such as kidney disease.
What are the Symptoms?
There really are no symptoms for high blood pressure except, perhaps, for mild headaches (see the doctor if you have headaches that don’t go away). You may have high blood pressure right now and not know it. That’s why it’s very important to have your doctor check your blood pressure regularly.
How is High Blood Pressure Treated?
Like other chronic diseases, hypertension can be controlled but not cured. It requires lifelong monitoring and management, and treatment may need to be adjusted at times. Unfortunately, some people don’t receive treatment until their blood pressure has been high for many years and has begun to damage their organs.
For most people, the first step in treatment is to make lifestyle changes. This means losing weight, increasing the amount of exercise you get, and changing your diet. Reducing sodium (salt) in your diet, limiting alcohol intake, quitting smoking, eating more fruits and vegetables, and getting more aerobic exercise can help to lower your blood pressure.
If the lifestyle changes are unable to control your blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe one or more medication(s), including diuretics (medication that promotes urination to reduce the pressure from water in the body). While some people don’t like to take a pill every day, especially if they don’t feel sick, a daily pill is much better than developing a stroke or heart attack, or needing kidney dialysis because your blood pressure was too high for too long.
Even if you have not been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it is important to have your blood pressure checked during annual exams, especially if you have a famiy history of high blood pressure. Those with high blood pressure should see their doctor more often.
For more information on hypertension among African-Americans, visit www.columbia-stmarys.org.