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What You Need to Know About Hypertension

07/19/2015 11:32 EDT | Updated 07/19/2016 05:59 EDT
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More than half of people who have hypertension, a.k.a. high blood pressure, don't know enough about the condition and are unable to control it properly, according to a new survey.

Often, patients don't even correctly understand the meaning of the word "hypertension," and think of it more in terms of stress, anxiety, or other psychological disturbance rather than what it actually is -- namely a physiological dysfunction that can turn into a chronic disease if untreated, the researchers found.

Many healthcare professionals use the words "hypertension" and "high blood pressure" interchangeably when talking to their patients, which can be confusing for some, said Dr. Barbara Bokhour, a professor of health policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health and co-author of the study, to Reuters.

Explained in a nutshell, blood pressure is the force exerted by the blood against the walls of blood vessels. It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). Measuring involves two readings: systolic, indicating the pressure as the heart pumps blood out, and diastolic, the remaining pressure as the heart relaxes and refills with blood.

Normal blood pressure ranges below 120 systolic and 80 diastolic. Readings of 120 to 139 systolic or 80 to 89 diastolic are considered "pre-hypertension," meaning there is a risk of developing hypertension without intervention. Everything above 140 over 90 is categorized as hypertension of various stages, with 180+ over 110+ seen as a medical emergency.

Hypertension can build up for years without ever showing discernable symptoms. But left uncontrolled, it can lead to life-threatening complications like kidney disease and heart disease as well as heart attack and stroke.

Hypertension is a growing worldwide epidemic. The number of people living with the disease crossed the 1 billion mark in 2008, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The causes are seen to a large degree as diet and lifestyle related, including excessive consumption of salt and alcohol as well as excess weight and lack of physical activity.

Against widely shared assumption, hypertension is not a disease that predominantly occurs with age. Recent studies found that young adults in their 20s and 30s are now increasingly at risk as well, facing complications much sooner than generations before them.

For this reason it is extremely important to keep blood pressure as low as possible, especially in the first half of adult life, said Dr. Joao Lima, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of one such study, ideally even below the recommended limits.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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