While heart disease is still a leading cause of death in the United States, death rates have decreased significantly.

Earlier and better treatment of high blood pressure has played a key role in that decrease.

High blood pressure, also known as HBP or hypertension, is considered a silent killer. It sneaks up on you, carries no symptoms and can put you at risk for heart disease. It can also feel like it came out of nowhere.

HBP is widely misunderstood. We often assume it affects those who are type-A, tense and aggressive. But the truth is, it has nothing to do with personality traits. In fact, you can be the most relaxed, calm person and still suffer from HBP.

The reality is that HBP is a condition that makes the heart work harder than normal. The excess strain and resulting damage from HBP cause the coronary arteries serving the heart to slowly become narrowed. Narrowed arteries that are less elastic make it more difficult for the blood to travel smoothly and easily throughout your body — causing your heart to work harder. In order to cope with increased demands, the heart thickens and becomes larger. While it is still able to pump blood, it becomes less efficient. The larger the heart becomes, the harder it works to meet your body's demands for oxygen and nutrients. Left untreated, HBP scars and damages your arteries and can lead to heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, eye damage, heart failure and fatty buildups in the arteries, called atherosclerosis.

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Blood pressure is typically recorded as two numbers and a written as a ratio. Systolic, the top, higher number, measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. Diastolic, the bottom, lower number, measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats.

Your blood pressure rises with each heartbeat and falls when your heart relaxes between beats. While it can change from minute to minute with changes in posture, exercise, stress or sleep, it should normally be 120/80 or below for adults. HBP is 130 systolic or higher or 80 diastolic or higher that stays high over time.

Without testing for HBP, you probably won't know whether you have this condition. Regular screening can tell you what your numbers are and whether you need to take action. Regular blood pressure screenings usually start in childhood. Starting at age 18, your blood pressure should be measured at least once every two years to screen for HBP as a risk factor for heart disease. If you're between 18 and 39 and have risk factors for HBP, you'll likely be screened once a year. People age 40 and older also are given a blood pressure test annually.

Regularly check your blood pressure to ensure it is in a healthy range. And, if you’re diagnosed with HBP, you should monitor your blood pressure regularly. Consider investing in a home blood pressure monitor to record your numbers regularly. Maintaining an awareness of your numbers can alert you to any changes and help you detect patterns. Tracking your results over time will also reveal if the changes you’ve made are working.

While there is no cure, HBP is manageable and preventable by adopting a healthy lifestyle which can keep your blood pressure in a healthy range.

Don’t let high blood pressure lead to heart disease. Practice the following healthy living habits:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet that's low in salt and includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables,
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink,
  • Be physically active at least 30 minutes a day,
  • Manage stress,
  • Maintain a healthy weight,
  • Don’t smoke,
  • Get enough sleep,
  • Take medications properly,
  • Get regular health screenings.

If you have concerns or believe you fall in a HBP category, speak with your health care provider to work together on a treatment plan. Controlling HBP can enhance your quality of life and not only reduce your risk of heart disease but also stroke, kidney disease and more.