High blood pressure (hypertension) affects 20% of the general population and up to half of all individuals 70 years of age and older. Approximately one billion people currently have high blood pressure, and this number is expected to increase by more than fifty percent by the year 2025.
Worldwide hypertension is the third leading cause of death and hypertension-related deaths are expected to rise drastically in the coming decades. Because hypertension is a major risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease, in 2002 it was named “the number one killer” by the World Health Organization (WHO), who also stated that the global disease burden attributable to hypertension causes:
- 20% of all deaths in men and 24% of all deaths in women
- 62% of strokes and 49% of coronary heart disease
- 11% of disability adjusted life years (DALYs)
High blood pressure places stress on the cardiovascular system. The strain on the heart leads to enlargement of cardiac chambers and causes damage to the blood vessels that supply the heart. In the peripheral circulation, the increased pressure in the vessels can cause intracranial bleeding and can damage vital organs, including the liver, kidneys, brain, and lungs. Despite all of these health factors, hypertension is often considered “the silent killer” because most patients with high blood pressure do not feel the effects and therefore might not seek treatment until it is too late. Therefore, diagnosing, preventing and managing high blood pressure are essential in our battle to eliminate this deadly disease, and monitoring your blood pressure regularly is the first step. These alarming facts and statistics emphasise the need for an immediate call to action within the medical community, key opinion leaders, and society.
Anyone can be at risk for developing high blood pressure. Although most people will experience high blood pressure at some time in their life, certain individuals are at higher risk for developing chronic (long-term) hypertension. Smoking, excess alcohol consumption, emotional stress, poor diet and/or exercise, and obesity can all play a prominent role in increasing your risk. In addition to these preventable factors, our genes can also contribute to our susceptibility to develop high blood pressure. Therefore, individuals with a family history of hypertension are more likely to develop hypertension.
As with many diseases, when an individual has multiple risk factors, their risk for developing hypertension multiplies. Likewise, reducing even one risk factor can greatly decrease our overall risk. Therefore, it is essential to minimise our risk factors for hypertension.
Unfortunately, some risk facts are beyond our control. Gender, race, ethnicity and other genetically determined factors are built into who we are and cannot be changed. Similarly, our geographic location and socio-economic factors are often beyond our control.
However, there are many key risk factors that we can control, including:
- Diet, in particular, our intake of fat and sodium
- Tobacco and alcohol use
- Stress levels
In addition, because patients with diabetes are at a higher risk for developing hypertension, it is essential that these individuals control their blood sugar level.
Lastly, although it is usually associated with the elderly, and even though the incidence of high blood pressure increases with age, hypertension is a disease that can strike at any age. It is therefore important to begin a regimen of regular blood pressure monitoring early, even if you believe you only have a moderate risk for developing hypertension.
The good news is that hypertension is a preventable disease. There are many steps that you can take to reduce your risk. Regular blood pressure monitoring in the home is an essential part of any prevention programme so that you and your physician can build up an accurate picture of your health.