High Blood Pressure: what is it?

High Blood Pressure, or Hypertension affects more than one in four adults in the UK.

High blood pressure readings occur when the force of blood pushing against the walls of blood vessels and arteries is consistently too ‘high’. This makes the heart have to work harder to pump the blood around the body and can contribute to hardening of the arteries, stroke, kidney disease or heart failure. A high reading is classed to be anything at 140/90mmHg or above.

The British Heart Foundation estimates that up to five million people are left undiagnosed.

High blood pressure can affect anyone at any age with the cause often unknown. Cheryl Lythgoe, Matron at Benenden Health states: “Several modifiable factors may play a role including, smoking, being overweight, poor physical activity and an unhealthy diet. We unfortunately cannot modify our age, genetics or family history so it is even more important to ensure we appropriately manage our lifestyles.”

High blood pressure symptoms

While symptoms of high blood pressure can be non-existent in some cases, sufferers may experience:

  • Nose bleeds - these are rarely serious but if frequent or heavy nose bleeds occur it could indicate further health issues

  • Pounding in the chest, neck or ears - when you haven't been exercising vigorously could be a sign of high blood pressure 

  • Difficulty breathing - shortness of breath during routine activities

  • Vision problems - blurred vision through to a complete lack of vision caused by damaging the blood vessels around the eye

  • Fatigue or confusion - any sudden change in a person's consciousness or sudden lethargy/drowsiness is a cause for concern

  • Blood in the urine - known as haematuria. It is thought this occurs due to the rupture of cysts or blood vessels around cysts in the kidneys and may lead to pink, red or brown urine.

  • Severe headaches - which cannot be resolved with simple painkillers, especially if there has been no history of migraines

  • Severe chest pain - mild or irregular episodes could indicate signs of high blood pressure

If you think you’re experiencing any of the effects of high blood pressure and are concerned about your health, you should speak to your GP.

What causes high blood pressure?

Most people with high blood pressure are diagnosed with primary hypertension – a class of high blood pressure that doesn’t have a known secondary cause. People who have an underlying medical condition are diagnosed with secondary hypertension.

The causes of high blood pressure can be hard to pinpoint but there are lifestyle factors that can increase your risk, particularly:

  • Drinking too much alcohol - regularly exceeding alcohol intake recommendations

  • Eating too much salt - salt intake makes your body hold onto water, this extra water then increases your blood pressure

  • Being overweight or obese - puts more strain on your heart as well as causing fatty deposits to line your arteries increasing blood pressure

  • Not doing enough exercise - doing exercise increases your blood pressure for a short period but over time will give you a lower resting blood pressure

  • Not eating a nutritious diet of fruits and vegetables - consuming saturated fats and cholesterol increase blood pressure, swapping these for fruit, vegetables and low fat dairy products can help avoid high blood pressure

  • Smoking - this narrows and hardens your arteries making blood clots more likely to occur

The causes of high blood pressure can be wide and varied. If you’re worried that any of the above factors are causing direct damage to your body, you should visit your GP. Likewise, if you're concerned about low blood pressure symptoms, make sure to seek medical guidance.

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Impacts of high blood pressure?

In the worst case scenarios and if high blood pressure symptoms are left untreated, serious conditions affecting both the heart and lungs can occur. High blood pressure is the largest single known risk factor for cardiovascular (heart and blood flow) disease and related health problems and can lead to:

  • Heart failure

  • Coronary artery disease

  • Stroke

  • Kidney disease

  • Vascular dementia

  • Eclampsia

How to lower high blood pressure

While high blood pressure may be controlled with medication from your GP, there are a number of lifestyle changes that can ease the pressure on your heart and body.

By finding the root cause of increased blood pressure, you may be able to improve your health without the need for medication. However, always make sure to speak to your GP before drastically changing your lifestyle or starting a new fitness regime. Methods to reduce your blood pressure include: 

  • Reduce body mass and control your weight - losing weight makes it easier for your arteries to expand and contract, which in turn makes it easier for your heart to move blood around your body

  • Exercise regularly - this makes your heart stronger and more efficient at pumping blood, lowering blood pressure in your arteries

  • Maintain a healthy diet - eating grains, fruit and vegetables can help maintain a lower blood pressure

  • Reduce the level of sodium in your diet - swapping processed foods for fresh food is an easy way to lower your salt intake

  • Reduce stress levels - prolonged stress can increase blood pressure, finding ways to reduce your stress such as listening to soothing music can help manage your blood pressure

  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink - alcohol is linked to 16% of high blood pressure cases around the world, staying within recommended guidelines will reduce your chances of developing high blood pressure

  • Stop smoking - chemicals in tobacco are known to damage your arteries, affecting your blood pressure

  • Monitor your blood pressure regularly - as you get older your blood pressure is likely to increase, it is recommended you get your blood pressure checked once a year

  • Reduce your caffeine intake - caffeine causes an instant increase in your blood pressure, try shopping for decaffeinated options 

If you have concerns about high blood pressure you should visit a GP. As a member of Benenden, you not only get access to useful health and wellbeing articles, videos and advice that will give you tips on dealing with potential health issues, but you also are able to use advisory services such as our 24/7 GP advice and health concern support.

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Please note: If you’ve experienced severe chest pain, irregular heartbeats or difficulty breathing, you could be suffering from high blood pressure and should be seen by a medical practitioner.

Medically reviewed by Cheryl Lythgoe on 30th January 2020. Next review date: 30th January 2021.