Medical matters

by Dr Jeremy Beckett

High blood pressure the silent killer - Part 1

Hypertension

Hypertension simply means high blood pressure. This condition affects a large proportion of our population, increasing with age:

Age group
Hypertension
  Men Women
25 - 34 7% 3%
35 - 54 22% 15%
55 - 74 58% 56%
75+ 79% 75%

As you can see, we each have a strong chance of developing hypertension (if we live long enough!).

Why is high blood pressure a problem?

Hypertension causes damage to the lining of our blood vessels. This means that our arteries are more likely to harden and become narrowed, potentially leading to heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, and many other life threatening medical problems. The high pressure also places strain on the heart, which can lead to eventual heart failure. Less commonly the blood pressure can be high enough to cause rupture of the blood vessels in the brain, which is another type of stroke (which may be fatal).

Hypertension is the third most important modifiable risk factor (behind smoking and physical inactivity) in the Western world.

What causes hypertension?

More than 90% of hypertension is termed "primary" – that is, without another obvious cause. The other types of hypertension are mostly secondary to hormonal or kidney abnormalities, for which there are specific tests. We don't know exactly why a particular person gets hypertension, but we know that obesity, lack of exercise, and high alcohol intake can make it worse. High dietary salt intake may also be a contributing problem.

Hypertension becomes a particularly dangerous condition when combined with other cardiovascular risk factors, especially smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity.

What are the symptoms of hypertension?

Here lies the big problem: in most cases there are no symptoms of hypertension. You can feel completely fit and well, and not realise that your high blood pressure is silently doing long-term damage to your arteries, leaving you at higher risk of a premature death. Sounds serious? It is.

How can I discover whether I have hypertension?

The obvious answer is that you need to have your blood pressure checked! At first glance, this is just a cheap, simple, non-invasive test with an inflatable blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope. But as you'll see in Part II (next edition), there can be a lot more to it than just that.

If you want to find out more about your blood pressure, don't wait until next month's Challenge – See your doctor.

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