Having elevated blood pressure, also called hypertension, is one of the most common yet dangerous health conditions. High blood pressure rarely produces obvious symptoms initially but can quietly cause cardiovascular damage, kidney failure, stroke, and other problems when left unchecked.
As a family physician, I regularly counsel patients about making lifestyle changes and adhering to medications to control high blood pressure. Here, I want to emphasize the serious complications uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause when ignored or not managed properly over months and years.
First, a quick primer on what the numbers from a blood pressure reading signify:
The systolic number represents pressure in your blood vessels when the heart beats.
The diastolic number refers to pressure when the heart relaxes between beats.
Normal blood pressure is considered 120 systolic/80 diastolic, stated as 120/80 mmHg.
Hypertension is diagnosed when blood pressure remains elevated over 130/80. The higher above normal, the greater the health risks.
Over time, the force of high blood pressure damages blood vessels, organs, and can lead to:
Heart attack and stroke
Uncontrolled hypertension makes the heart work too hard and damages arteries. This leads to plaque buildup that can suddenly rupture and create clots blocking blood flow to the heart or brain resulting in heart attack or stroke.
Increased pressure can progressively weaken arterial walls causing abnormal bulging (aneurysm). If one ruptures, it can be fatal.
The strain on the heart caused by hypertension can weaken the organ over time leading to heart failure. This results in fatigue, breathing difficulties, fluid buildup in lungs and limbs, and inability to exercise.
The kidneys act as filters for the body. High blood pressure damages this delicate organ leading to kidney disease and failure. Dialysis or transplant is needed when kidneys fail.
Hypertension can damage the small vessels in the eyes, leading to retinopathy and blindness if untreated. Regular eye exams are key.
Research shows uncontrolled hypertension can increase risks for cognitive decline, vascular dementia, and Alzheimer's disease.
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
Plaque buildup caused by hypertension also blocks arteries supplying the legs and arms resulting in PAD pain, sores, and reduced mobility.
The penile arteries can also narrow due to high blood pressure, resulting in difficulties obtaining and maintaining erections.
The key point I want patients to understand is that high blood pressure causes significant morbidity and mortality if left unmanaged. Monitoring your BP, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a low-sodium diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, and taking medications as prescribed can all help control hypertension and avoid these serious complications.
Don't take high BP numbers lightly - uncontrolled hypertension greatly reduces your length and quality of life over time. But through lifestyle changes and working closely with your doctor to reach target BP ranges, you can mitigate risks and live fully and well. Small daily steps create lifelong health gains.