What Causes High Blood Pressure?

Female Doctor Checking Blood Pressure of Senior Patient

When your healthcare provider straps a blood pressure cuff around your arm, the goal is to get some insight into how well your heart is working. High blood pressure isn’t a disease on its own. However, over time, the damage it can do to the heart and blood vessels can contribute to heart disease.

Here’s what you should know about high blood pressure—also known as hypertension

What Is Blood Pressure?

When your heart beats, it creates pressure that pushes blood through your body’s arteries, veins and capillaries. Blood pressure is the result of two forces. First, blood pumps out of the heart and into the arteries. That’s called systolic pressure. And when the heart rests between each beat, that’s called diastolic pressure.

A blood pressure reading is comprised of two numbers: the systolic blood pressure and the diastolic blood pressure. A healthy blood pressure level is less than 120/80 mmHg, or “120 over 80,” with the top number being your systolic pressure and the bottom number your diastolic pressure. 

Your blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day based on your activities. If it consistently remains above normal—which means the blood is putting excess pressure on the walls of your blood vessels—that may be a sign of high blood pressure.

The higher your blood pressure, the greater your risk for developing other health problems, including heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Outside of doctors’ appointments, monitoring your blood pressure can be tricky. Blood pressure levels usually creep up gradually, and high blood pressure generally doesn’t have any noticeable symptoms.

The good news: high blood pressure can be prevented and managed. Both begin with knowing what causes it. 

Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure

Family History

One cause of high blood pressure is genetics. While genes play some role in high blood pressure, it appears just as likely that family members are at an increased risk because of the environments and other potential risk factors they share, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Public Health Genomics.

Age, Sex and Race

Your age, sex, and race or ethnicity can also influence your risk for developing high blood pressure. About 9 out of 10 Americans will develop high blood pressure during their lifetime because blood pressure tends to rise as we get older. And women are about twice as likely as men to develop high blood pressure during their lifetime. 

Black people develop high blood pressure more often than most other races. Compared with white people, Black people are also more likely to develop high blood pressure earlier in life.

Diet and Exercise 

While it’s important to know your family history and personal risk factors, you should also consider the causes you can control. Diet and activity level are two key factors. 

When it comes to your diet, aim to eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Try to eat fewer foods high in sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Look for fruits and vegetables high in potassium, which can reduce the impact of sodium on your blood pressure. 

Exercise is also key. Getting 150 minutes of moderate activity per week can reduce blood pressure and help you avoid chronic high blood pressure. 

Smoking and Alcohol

Smoking and drinking too much also increases your risk of high blood pressure. For women, that means more than a single drink a day. For men, it’s more than two. 

The nicotine in tobacco raises blood pressure. And breathing in carbon monoxide, which is produced from smoking tobacco, reduces the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry.

Health Conditions

Certain health conditions can play a part in developing high blood pressure. About 6 in 10 people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure. When insulin problems prevent glucose from entering cells, that sugar can build up in and damage blood vessels. 

High blood pressure can also happen during pregnancy. This condition can put the mother and her baby at risk for complications during pregnancy, delivery, and after delivery. In the United States, high blood pressure occurs in 1 in every 12 to 17 pregnancies among women ages 20 to 44.

Preventing and Managing High Blood Pressure

Whether you have high blood pressure or you want to prevent it, there are things you can do. Always follow your doctor’s advice and take any prescribed medications for high blood pressure. In addition, manage your lifestyle risk factors: 

  • Don’t smoke
  • Drink alcohol conservatively, or not at all
  • Eat a nutrient-dense diet that’s low in sodium
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Aim to exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week
  • Manage your stress levels
  • Get plenty of sleep

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.

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