Everybody knows someone with high blood pressure (BP)…father, aunt, colleague! It is quite common to hear “I visited my GP and had a BP check”. What does it really mean? What are those values we hear 120 over 80 (millimeters of Mercury)? How does BP impact our daily life?
How does the heart work?
The heart is the pump that allows the blood to flow in and out towards the rest of our body (heartbeats). This is done through the blood vessels which are :
- Arteries(red): blood with oxygen flows in,
- Veins (blue): blood without oxygen flows out
These pipes have flexible walls that get stiff as time passes. Similar to limestone in water pipes, arteriosclerosis depots can accumulate into blood vessels thus limiting flexibility furthermore.
What happens when blood vessels become stiff?
The stiffer the blood vessels get, the less adaptable they become to change in blood flow such as during exercise or stress. At an advanced stage, if the pressure inside fragilized vessels is too high, it might burst with blood flow leaking out, or it might get obstructed by all deposits. Both lead to health complications which we commonly hear of:
- Stroke if it happens in arteries irrigating the brain, or
- Heart attack (myocardial infarction) if in heart muscle vessels (coronary arteries).
These two examples are sudden health issues requiring immediate transfer to the hospital.
Where does high BP fit into this
When blood pressure is slightly high over the years, it puts constant pressure on arteries’ walls and arteriosclerosis develops with poor blood flow to organs. If the leg, the kidneys, the eyes, etc are not well irrigated, they will suffer from lack of nutrients and oxygen. This will decrease their functioning capacity progressively leading to permanent organ damage and failure.
There are a few other factors that are known to accelerate this process. These are called cardio-vascular risk factors and include :
- high blood pressure (over 140/90 mmHg)
- smoking (active or passive)
- diabetes (any type)
- lack of physical activity
- obesity (BMI > 30 km/m2)
- genetics (male gender, female gender over 50, ethnicity e.g. Indian subcontinent)
- diet & cholesterol levels
- socio-economic status
Few factors are certainly not modifiable such as age, gender, or ethnicity, but we have the ability to influence many others. Increasing our weekly physical activity such as regular walks has been proven to decrease blood pressure. This is easy to implement and inexpensive. All efforts should be made to stop smoking. It is a major contributor to reducing the quality of life due to organ fatigue because of high BP.
How can you help?
Ask yourself the right questions: Do I know my BP numbers? Does it run in my family? Do I know someone facing health issues due to high BP such as cardiovascular diseases (stroke, myocardial infarction, other organ damage)? What about my cardio-vascular risk assessment? Am I facing a risk of health issues?
You should also request your family doctor to assess your cardiovascular risk using a score risk chart. It will inform about the risk of getting a cardiovascular health event in the 10 coming years, and what might be done to reduce this risk.