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How High Blood Pressure Harms Your Body

If you have high blood pressure, it’s critical that you follow your prescribed treatment plan. Here’s why.

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If you’re among the one in three Americans who have high blood pressure, you may be tempted to ignore your condition. There are usually no symptoms and many people with high blood pressure, or hypertension, feel fine.

But over time, living with high blood pressure can damage your body and affect your long-term health. That’s why it’s important to get treatment and make lifestyle changes that can help you live your life to the fullest.

Some complications of high blood pressure include:

  • Heart failure. Blood pressure that is too high over time can make the heart work too hard, weakening it. Eventually, it can lead to heart failure, a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood through the body.
  • Heart attack. High blood pressure can lead to a narrowing of arteries, which limits the flow of blood. A heart attack may happen when the blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked because of these narrowings.
  • Stroke. High blood pressure is one of the main risk factors for stroke. A stroke can happen if a blood clot blocks an artery to the brain. Also, when a weakened blood vessel breaks and bleeds in the brain, it can cause a stroke.
  • Chronic kidney disease. High blood pressure can lead to damaged kidneys because narrowed or blocked arteries cannot deliver enough oxygen-rich blood to them. Eventually, the kidneys may fail.
  • Eye problems. High blood pressure can damage the blood vessels in your eyes. The damage may cause vision problems, including poor vision and even blindness.

How to reduce your risk

If your blood pressure is normal — under 120 on the top (systolic blood pressure) and under 80 on the bottom (diastolic blood pressure) — that’s great.

If your doctor tells you your blood pressure readings are higher than what is considered normal, there are steps you can take to protect your body.

  1. Take all medications as prescribed. If your doctor says you need medicine, be sure to stick to the regimen. Don’t stop taking the drugs when your blood pressure goes down. That simply means that the medication is working. If you stop the medications, your blood pressure will go back up again.

  2. Reach or maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, try to lose some pounds. Taking off just 5 to 10 percent of your weight may lower your risk for the problems associated with high blood pressure.

  3. One eating plan option for you to follow is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan. The DASH plan focuses on fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. It’s also high in whole grains, poultry, seafood (especially fatty fish) and nuts. It’s low in red and processed meats, trans and saturated fats, sweets and sugary drinks.

  4. Limit sodium (salt). Sodium (salt) intake is known to contribute to high blood pressure. Adults who would benefit from lower blood pressure should take in no more than 2,400 mg per day of dietary sodium. Even more benefits can be seen when sodium is limited to 1,500 milligrams a day.

    Most Americans consume far more sodium than that, mostly from processed foods and eating out. If your current diet has lots of sodium, start by cutting it by at least 1,000 mg a day. That can help bring your blood pressure down as you work toward more desirable levels. Check the sodium content on Nutrition Facts labels and on restaurant menus. Choose foods lower in sodium.

  5. Get moving. Being active can lower your blood pressure and improve your overall health. Studies show that getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week (for example, 30 minutes daily for five days a week) brings substantial benefits. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program or increasing your activity level. He or she can tell you what types and amounts of activities are safe and suitable for you.

  6. Limit alcohol. Limit alcohol when you have high blood pressure. Too much alcohol raises blood pressure. If you choose to drink — and have your doctor’s OK — men should have no more than two drinks a day. If you’re a woman and you choose to drink, your limit should be one drink per day. Remember, alcohol can have an effect on some medications. Talk to your pharmacist or doctor about whether or not it is safe for you to have alcohol while on blood pressure medicine.

Don’t smoke. Smoking can contribute to high blood pressure by damaging your blood vessels. It can also make other health problems associated with high blood pressure worse. Your doctor or other health care provider can suggest resources to help you quit smoking, like classes at hospitals or community groups. Many people benefit from support groups made up of others who are trying to quit.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How is high blood pressure treated? Accessed: December 8, 2015.
James, PA, Oparil, S, Carter, BL, et al. 2014 Evidence-based guideline for the management of high blood pressure in adults: Report from the panel members appointed to the eighth joint national committee (JNC 8).The Journal of the American Medical Association. February 5, 2014, Vol 311, No 5. Accessed: December 8, 2015.
2013 AHA/ACC Guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk. Accessed: December 8, 2015.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What are the signs and symptoms of high blood pressure? Accessed: December 8, 2015.

Last Updated: December 8, 2015