Understand Your Risk for High Blood Pressure

Updated:Jun 29,2016

Step 3: Your Risk for High Blood Pressure. One out of three Americans has high blood pressure. Many are unaware.

Are you a likely candidate for high blood pressure?

If so, it will be even more important for you to manage your lifestyle with heart-healthier habits. Science has identified several factors that can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure (HBP) and thus your risk for heart attack, heart disease and stroke.

Risks among certain groups

  • African-Americans – If you're African American, there's a good chance that you or a relative has HBP.
  • Women – Starting at age 65, women are more likely to have high blood pressure than men.
  • Children – While HBP is most common in adults, children can develop it, too.

Risk factors for developing high blood pressure, also called hypertension:

  • Family history
    Height, hair and eye color runs in families --- so can high blood pressure. If your parents or close blood relatives have had HBP, you are more likely to develop it, too. You might also pass that risk factor on to your children. That's why it's important for children as well as adults to have regular blood pressure checks. You can't control heredity, but you can take steps to live a healthy life and lower your other risk factors. Lifestyle choices have allowed many people with a strong family history of HBP to avoid it themselves. Learn about lifestyle changes you can make to prevent HBP.

    Eye color isn't your only inherited trait. You may also share a risk for HBP.
  • Advanced age
    As we age, we all develop higher risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Blood vessels lose flexibility with age which can contribute to increasing pressure throughout the system.
  • Gender-related risk patterns
    A higher percentage of men than women have HBP until 45 years of age. From ages 45 to 54 and 55 to 64, the percentages of men and women with HBP are similar. After that, a much higher percentage of women have HBP than men.
  • Lack of physical activity
    Physical activity is good for your heart and circulatory system. An inactive lifestyle increases the chance of high blood pressure, heart disease, blood vessel disease and stroke. Inactivity also makes it easier to become overweight or obese. Give yourself the gift of improved health and lower blood pressure with regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
  • Poor diet, especially one that includes too much salt
    To care for our bodies, we all need good nutrition from a variety of food sources. A diet that's high in calories, fats and sugars and low in essential nutrients contributes directly to poor health as well as to obesity. In addition, there are some problems that can happen from eating too much salt. Some people are "salt sensitive," meaning a high-salt (sodium) diet raises their high blood pressure. Salt keeps excess fluid in the body that can add to the burden on the heart. While too much salt can be dangerous, healthy food choices can actually lower blood pressure. Learn about enjoying a heart-healthy diet.

    A diet high in sodium and low in nutritional value puts you at higher risk for HBP.
  • Overweight and obesity
    Being overweight increases your chances of developing high blood pressure. A body mass index between 25 and 30 is considered overweight. A body mass index over 30 is considered obese. About two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. About one in three U.S. children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese. Excess weight increases the strain on the heart, raises blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It can also make diabetes more likely to develop. Losing as little as 10 to 20 pounds can help lower your blood pressure and your heart disease risk. To successfully and healthfully lose weight—and keep it off—most people need to subtract about 500 calories per day from their diet to lose about 1 pound per week. Calculate your body mass index and learn how to manage your weight.
  • Drinking too much alcohol
    Heavy and regular use of alcohol can increase blood pressure dramatically. It can also cause heart failure, lead to stroke and produce irregular heartbeats. Too much alcohol can contribute to high triglycerides, cancer and other diseases, obesity, alcoholism, suicide and accidents. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. If you drink, limit your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.  One drink equals a 12-ounce beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, or 1  ounce of hard liquor (100-proof). If you drink in excess, find out about curbing alcohol intake.

    Drinking too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure.

    Possible contributing factors

    There is some connection between blood pressure and these factors but science has not proven that they actually cause high blood pressure.

    • Stress
      Being in a stressful situation can temporarily increase your blood pressure, but science has not proven that stress causes high blood pressure. Some scientists have noted a relationship between coronary heart disease risk and stress in a person's life, health behaviors and socioeconomic status. How you deal with stress may affect other, established risk factors for high blood pressure or heart disease. For example, people under stress may overeat or eat a less healthy diet, put off physical activity, drink, smoke or misuse drugs. Find ways to reduce stress.
    • Smoking and second-hand smoke
      Smoking temporarily raises blood pressure and increases your risk of damaged arteries. The use of tobacco can be devastating to your health, especially if you're already at risk for high blood pressure. Secondhand smoke --- exposure to other people's smoke --- increases the risk of heart disease for nonsmokers. Learn how to kick the habit.
    • Sleep Apnea
      Some 12 million Americans have sleep apnea, according to National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimates. Sleep Apnea is a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder in which tissues in the throat collapse and block the airway. The brain forces the sleeper awake enough to cough or gulp air and open the trachea up again. But then, the whole cycle starts all over again. Pauses in breathing can contribute to severe fatigue during the day, increase your safety risks, and make it difficult to perform tasks that require alertness.  Sleep apnea is also a risk factor for such medical problems as high blood pressure, heart failure, diabetes and stroke. Learn more about sleep apnea.

    Secondary hypertension: HBP caused by a pre-existing problem

    In 5-10 percent of high blood pressure cases, the HBP is caused by a pre-existing problem. This type of HBP is called secondary hypertension because another problem was present first.

    Factors that may lead to secondary hypertension include:

    • Kidney abnormality, including a tumor on the adrenal gland, which is located on top of the kidneys
    • A structural abnormality of the aorta (the large blood vessel leaving the heart) that has existed since birth
    • Narrowing of certain arteries

    The good news is that these pre-existing problems can usually be fixed. For example, doctors can repair a narrowed artery that supplies blood to a kidney. Once the root cause of secondary hypertension is corrected, blood pressure typically returns to normal. For those with HBP, a physical exam and some tests can help your doctor determine whether your high blood pressure is primary or secondary hypertension.

    High blood pressure is just one condition that increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. Learn about other heart disease and stroke risk factors.

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This content was last reviewed on 08/04/2014.


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