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Hypertension - Causes And Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prognosis - Prevention

blood pressure heart arteries

Hypertension is high blood pressure. Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries as it flows through them. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the body's tissues.

As blood flows through arteries it pushes against the inside of the artery walls. The more pressure the blood exerts on the artery walls, the higher the blood pressure will be. The size of small arteries also affects the blood pressure. When the muscular walls of arteries are relaxed, or dilated, the pressure of the blood flowing through them is lower than when the artery walls narrow, or constrict.

Blood pressure is highest when the heart beats to push blood out into the arteries. When the heart relaxes to fill with blood again, the pressure is at its lowest point. Blood pressure when the heart beats is called systolic pressure. Blood pressure when the heart is at rest is called diastolic pressure. When blood pressure is measured, the systolic pressure is stated first and the diastolic pressure second. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). For example, if a person's systolic pressure is 120 and diastolic pressure is 80, it is written as 120/80 mm Hg. The American Heart Association considers blood pressure less than 140 over 90 normal for adults.

Hypertension is a major health problem, especially because it has no symptoms. Many people have hypertension without knowing it. In the United States, about 50 million people age six and older have high blood pressure. Hypertension is more common in men than women and in people over the age of 65 than in younger persons. More than half of all Americans over the age of 65 have hypertension. It is also more common in African-Americans than in white Americans.

Hypertension is serious because people with the condition have a higher risk for heart disease and other medical problems than people with normal blood pressure. Serious complications can be avoided by getting regular blood pressure checks and treating hypertension as soon as it is diagnosed.

If left untreated, hypertension can lead to the following medical conditions:

  • arteriosclerosis, also called atherosclerosis
  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • enlarged heart
  • kidney damage

Arteriosclerosis is hardening of the arteries. The walls of arteries have a layer of muscle and elastic tissue that makes them flexible and able to dilate and constrict as blood flows through them. High blood pressure can make the artery walls thicken and harden. When artery walls thicken, the inside of the blood vessel narrows. Cholesterol and fats are more likely to build up on the walls of damaged arteries, making them even narrower. Blood clots can also get trapped in narrowed arteries, blocking the flow of blood.

Arteries narrowed by arteriosclerosis may not deliver enough blood to organs and other tissues. Reduced or blocked blood flow to the heart can cause a heart attack. If an artery to the brain is blocked, a stroke can result.

Hypertension makes the heart work harder to pump blood through the body. The extra workload can make the heart muscle thicken and stretch. When the heart becomes too enlarged it cannot pump enough blood. If the hypertension is not treated, the heart may fail.

The kidneys remove the body's wastes from the blood. If hypertension thickens the arteries to the kidneys, less waste can be filtered from the blood. As the condition worsens, the kidneys fail and wastes build up in the blood. Dialysis or a kidney transplant are needed when the kidneys fail. About 25% of people who receive kidney dialysis have kidney failure caused by hypertension.


Prevention of hypertension centers on avoiding or eliminating known risk factors. Even persons at risk because of age, race, or sex or those who have an inherited risk can lower their chance of developing hypertension.

The risk of developing hypertension can be reduced by making the same changes recommended for treating hypertension.


Resources

Books

Bellenir, Karen, and Peter D. Dresser, eds. Cardiovascular Diseases and Disorders Sourcebook. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1995.

Texas Heart Institute. Heart Owner's Handbook. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996.


Toni Rizzo

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Arteries

—Blood vessels that carry blood to organs and other tissues of the body.

Arteriosclerosis

—Hardening and thickening of artery walls.

Cushing's syndrome

—A disorder in which too much of the adrenal hormone, cortisol, is produced; it may be caused by a pituitary or adrenal gland tumor.

Diastolic blood pressure

—Blood pressure when the heart is resting between beats.

Hypertension

—High blood pressure.

Renal artery stenosis

—Disorder in which the arteries that supply blood to the kidneys constrict.

Sphygmomanometer

—An instrument used to measure blood pressure.

Systolic blood pressure

—Blood pressure when the heart contracts (beats).

Vasodilator

—Any drug that relaxes blood vessel walls.

Ventricles

—The two lower chambers of the heart; also the main pumping chambers.

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