What Causes High Blood Pressure?

Published March 28th, 2020 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera
Updated Date: Apr 16th, 2021

If you’re one of the one in two Americans struggling to keep their blood pressure at a manageable level, you may be looking for more ways to manage your condition. High blood pressure is sometimes called the “silent killer” because it produces few symptoms but is a major contributor to many of the leading causes of death, including heart disease and stroke. Before we can talk about how to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure, it’s important to understand what causes high blood pressure, what types of problems it can cause in our bodies, and what our blood pressure goals should be. 

What is high blood pressure?

In order to keep our bodies functioning normally and keep us alive, our hearts pump blood through our bodies to reach our tissues and organs, delivering much needed oxygen from our blood. Your blood pressure is the force at which blood pushes against the walls of the blood vessels, including your arteries, veins, and capillaries. The main function of the heart is to pump blood throughout our bodies, and your blood pressure reading measures the force at which this occurs.
Blood pressure readings are given in the form of two numbers, which measure systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. The top number listed in your blood pressure reading is the systolic pressure, while the diastolic pressure is the second or bottom number. The systolic, or “active,” pressure is measured as the blood pumps out of the heart and into the arteries.  This is the force at which your blood pushes against the walls of the blood vessels while your heart is actively working. Diastolic pressure is the pressure of the blood in your blood vessels when your heart rests between beats; it may help to think of this as the “resting” pressure.
High blood pressure is diagnosed when your blood flow is consistently pushes against the walls of your blood vessels too forcefully over time, causing damage and risk factors. High blood pressure is dangerous because it causes damage to the heart and blood vessels by increasing their workload, causing them to work less efficiently and have to work harder to provide the tissues and organs with the blood they need to function. When your blood pressure is too high, it eventually can cause a narrowing of the blood vessels by creating microtears in the walls of the arteries. This narrowing further prevents blood from reaching the different areas of the body and further elevates your blood pressure. 

What causes high blood pressure?

For such serious health topics and health issues, you would think that scientists would know the exact cause of high blood pressure, but the jury is still out. Thanks to the American Heart Association, what we do know is that there are a number of factors that contribute to hypertension, including genetic factors, cardiovascular disease, health conditions, and lifestyle choices. Some causes linked to high blood pressure include:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Eating too much salt
  • Drinking excess alcohol (more than one or two drinks per day)
  • Stress
  • Aging
  • Genetics
  • Family history
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Adrenal and thyroid disorders
  • Sleep apnea

In more than 95 percent of cases, the exact cause of hypertension cannot be identified. When this happens, it is referred to as “essential hypertension.” When high blood pressure is categorized as essential hypertension, it is commonly caused by lifestyle factors and side effects; salt intake is a particularly common culprit among people diagnosed with essential hypertension.

What are the blood pressure measurement ranges?

There are five different categories for blood pressure based on heart beat. Blood pressure readings are written by placing the systolic blood pressure, or “active,” number on top and the diastolic, or “resting,” number on the bottom (mm hg). 

  • Normal blood pressure: 90 - 120 over 60 - 80 (90-120/60-80)
  • Elevated blood pressure: 120 - 129 over less than 80 (120-129/less than 80)
  • Stage 1 high blood pressure: 130-139 over 80 - 89 (130-139/80-89)
  • Stage 2 high blood pressure: 140 and above over 90 and above (140 and above/90 and above)
  • Hypertension crisis: higher than 180 over higher than 120 (higher than 180/higher than 120). In cases of a hypertension crisis, seek medical attention right away.

Who is at risk for high blood pressure?

The short answer is that everyone is at risk for high blood pressure, which is part of the reason why the condition is so common. There are many lifestyle factors, genetic factors, and medical factors that play a role in who develops hypertension. Men are more likely than women to experience high blood pressure until age 45, but both genders experience similar rates of high blood pressure from ages 45 to 65. After age 65, women are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure.  Race can also play a role in determining your risk for high blood pressure, as African-Americans are significantly more likely to experience high blood pressure than non-Hispanic Caucasians or Latino people. Of the 103 million people in the United States who had high blood pressure as of 2018, only about half reported having their blood pressure under control. While the majority (over 80 percent) were aware that they had high blood pressure and 75 percent were treating the condition, nearly 50 percent of people reported that their hypertension was still not in control. The incidence of high blood pressure is expected to continue to rise in the coming decades despite increasing awareness of the dangers associated with hypertension. 

What conditions can high blood pressure cause?

A number of serious health conditions are either caused or worsened by high blood pressure, some of them fatal. Some of the conditions most commonly linked to hypertension include:

  • Stroke
  • Vision loss
  • Heart failure
  • Nosebleeds
  • Heart attack
  • Kidney disease and kidney failure
  • Sexual dysfunction

One of the things that makes hypertension so dangerous is that it usually produces no symptoms, so people may not realize they have high blood pressure until it is too late. That’s why it’s important to have your blood pressure checked regularly, especially as you age. 

How can I lower my blood pressure?

Due to the large number of lifestyle factors that play a role in high blood pressure, there are many steps you can take to lower your risk with a few simple lifestyle changes. If you notice symptoms of high blood pressure, start by incorporating one or more of these changes into your daily routine:

  • Exercise more: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends exercising for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. In layman’s terms? Shoot for moving more for 30 minutes each day.
  • Drop some weight: If you’re carrying around excess weight and have high blood pressure, losing the extra pounds is one of the most effective ways to see your numbers drop. Losing just five to ten pounds can lead to a noticeable drop in your blood pressure.
  • Cut back on carbs and sugar: In addition to helping you manage your weight, low carb diets have been found to reduce blood pressure more than low fat diets.
  • Stay away from salt: Salt sensitivity has been found to be higher in people with high blood pressure. Cut out added sodium from your diet and add in potassium, which helps reduce the effects salt has on your blood pressure while also easing the pressure on your blood vessels. and artery walls 
  • Incorporate whole foods: Whole foods naturally contain less sodium than the highly processed stuff, so incorporating more lean meats, fruits, and vegetables will help keep your salt intake down and your weight manageable.
  • Stop smoking: Nicotine is a stimulant that immediately increases your blood pressure and heart rate. Quitting smoking will help lower your blood pressure. 
  • Reduce your stress: Managing your stress is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your blood pressure. If you can’t cut back on your obligations at work or at home, try practicing deep breathing, mindfulness, or meditation or add in a little yoga. 
  • Incorporate herbs: Fancy some lower blood pressure with that cup of tea? Some herbs, like ginger root, celery juice, sesame oil, green tea, tomato extract, and oolong tea, have been shown to reduce blood pressure. 
  • Eat some chocolate: It might sound too good to be true, but eating dark chocolate can help lower your blood pressure. Eating one to two squares of 60 to 70 percent cacao dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure and inflammation.
  • Get more sleep: Of course you need more sleep - who doesn’t? If you have high blood pressure, you need to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority. Studies have shown that sleep deprived people have a higher risk of high blood pressure, so spend some time practicing good sleep hygiene and try to get in your eight hours. 
  • Consume less alcohol: Excess alcohol is one of those things that raises blood pressure even in people who are healthy.  Keep your intake to a minimum (one drink per day for women, and no more than two drinks per day for men).
  • Reduce caffeine intake: Like nicotine, caffeine immediately and temporarily increases your blood pressure for about 45 to 60 minutes. If your blood pressure is a concern, cut back on caffeine. 
  • Take blood pressure medication if needed: If you already live a healthy lifestyle but still have high blood pressure or shortness of breath, or if your blood pressure is very high, you may need to take a prescription medication such as beta blockers to lower your blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about your options.

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