Blood pressure (BP) refers to the pressure your blood is put under as it travels through your arteries. When the blood pushes hard against your artery walls, your blood pressure rises and this puts extra strain on your heart and arteries.
High blood pressure has no symptoms and half of those affected aren't diagnosed or receiving treatment. This equates to around five million people in England alone who are unaware that they are at risk of developing serious, life-threatening conditions.1
High blood pressure was responsible for approximately 75,000 deaths in the UK in 2015.
In 95 per cent of cases there is no identifiable cause. However, risk factors for high blood pressure include: getting older; having a salt-heavy diet; drinking too much alcohol; being overweight; not eating enough fruit and vegetables; and not getting enough exercise.
Some medical conditions, such as sleep apnoea, chronic kidney disease and thyroid problems, can raise blood pressure - as can prescription medicines: asthma medication is one example.
There are some claims that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can increase blood pressure, but it is not clear if this is the case.2 However, women taking HRT should still have their blood pressure checked regularly, as it may rise during the menopause.
Unfortunately, one of the problems with diagnosing high blood pressure is that it very rarely has any noticeable symptoms at all. Therefore, it is important to have your blood pressure checked regularly.
To find out whether you have high blood pressure you will need to have it measured using a blood pressure monitor - preferably by a doctor or nurse at your local surgery. This involves having an inflatable cuff wrapped around your upper arm which the doctor or nurse inflates until it feels tight. A digital display connected to the inflated cuff displays the figures to show your blood pressure levels.
Blood pressure readings have two numbers. The top number is your systolic blood pressure; the highest pressure to which your heart beats and pushes the blood around your body. The bottom one is your diastolic blood pressure; the lowest pressure to which your heart relaxes between beats.
An ideal blood pressure reading is between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg, but the Blood Pressure Association says most people have blood pressure in the range 120/80 to 140/80. You have high blood pressure if your reading is consistently 140/90 or higher over a couple of weeks.
Who gets high blood pressure?
High blood pressure can affect anyone, though it’s more likely to develop as you age - particularly from 65 onwards.
Age can be especially relevant if you haven’t had very healthy habits throughout your life. The effects of eating too much salt and drinking too much alcohol - both of which are risk factors - can build up over time and increase your risk of high blood pressure.
Having a family history of high blood pressure can raise your risk too, as can your ethnicity. People who have South Asian or African-Caribbean origins, for example, have an increased risk of high blood pressure.
If your blood pressure is too high you’ll be advised to make some lifestyle changes to bring it down, including: taking more exercise; eating more fruit and vegetables; reducing alcohol intake; and cutting down the amount of salt you eat. Adults are recommended to eat no more than 6g of salt a day, though most of us are consuming double that. Processed foods, such as bacon and canned soups have a high salt content - as does bread - so cut down on these.
Some people may need to take medication to help regulate their blood pressure. Pills prescribed include: ACE-inhibitors, which block a hormone that raises blood pressure; beta-blockers, which block the effects of adrenaline; and diuretics, which cause the kidneys to remove more sodium and water from the body, which relaxes blood vessel walls.
Supplements which may help lower blood pressure include garlic and magnesium. One study found that co-enzyme Q10 had the potential to lower systolic blood pressure by 17mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 10mmHg without significant side effects. Studies have also found an association between low vitamin D levels and high blood pressure, although a causal link hasn't been established yet.