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Learning About High Blood Pressure

Damaged artery and artery with plaque

What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is a measure of how hard the blood pushes against the walls of your arteries. It's normal for blood pressure to go up and down throughout the day, but if it stays up, you have high blood pressure. Another name for high blood pressure is hypertension.

Two numbers tell you your blood pressure. The first number is the systolic pressure. It shows how hard the blood pushes when your heart is pumping. The second number is the diastolic pressure. It shows how hard the blood pushes between heartbeats, when your heart is relaxed and filling with blood.

Your doctor will give you a goal for your blood pressure. Your goal will be based on your health and your age. High blood pressure (hypertension) means that the top number stays high, or the bottom number stays high, or both.

High blood pressure increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other problems. You and your doctor will talk about your risks of these problems based on your blood pressure.

What happens when you have high blood pressure?

  • Blood flows through your arteries with too much force. Over time, this damages the walls of your arteries. But you can't feel it. High blood pressure usually doesn't cause symptoms.
  • Fat and calcium start to build up in your arteries. This buildup is called plaque. Plaque makes your arteries narrower and stiffer. Blood can't flow through them as easily.
  • This lack of good blood flow starts to damage some of the organs in your body. This can lead to problems such as coronary artery disease and heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and eye damage.

How can you prevent high blood pressure?

  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Try to limit how much sodium you eat to less than 2,000 milligrams (mg) a day (5 grams of salt or 87 mmol of sodium per day).
    • Buy foods that are labelled "unsalted," "sodium-free," or "low-sodium." Foods labelled "reduced-sodium" and "lightly salted" may still have too much sodium.
    • Flavour your food with garlic, lemon juice, onion, vinegar, herbs, and spices instead of salt. Do not use soy sauce, steak sauce, onion salt, garlic salt, mustard, or ketchup on your food.
    • Use less salt (or none) when recipes call for it. You can often use half the salt a recipe calls for without losing flavour.
  • Be physically active. Get at least 2½ hours of exercise a week. Walking is a good choice. You also may want to do other activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis or team sports.
  • Limit alcohol to 3 drinks a day for men and 2 drinks a day for women.
  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Eat less saturated and total fats.

How is high blood pressure treated?

  • Your doctor will suggest making lifestyle changes to help your heart. For example, your doctor may ask you to eat healthy foods, quit smoking, lose extra weight, and be more active.
  • If lifestyle changes don't help enough, your doctor may recommend that you take medicine.
  • When your blood pressure is very high, medicines are needed to lower it.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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