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Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, is a major health concern that comes with very few symptoms.
According to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) published on Tuesday, it identifies the condition as one of the world's leading risk factors for death and disability.
That's largely because the majority of adults worldwide — four out of five, to be exact — are inadequately treated for hypertension. Moreover, there were 1.3 billion people globally living with high blood pressure in 2019 — and nearly half were unaware of it.
By 2050, the WHO indicated that a lack of adequate care for hypertension could cause 76 million deaths across the world.
Dr. Sheldon Tobe, a Toronto-based nephrologist at Sunnybrook Hospital, told Yahoo Canada last year that hypertension is a "silent killer."
Since the majority of people don't know they're living with high blood pressure and it affects one in three adults, according to the WHO, it's a deadly condition that often leads to health problems like stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney damage.
"High blood pressure is preventable from following a healthy lifestyle."Dr. Sheldon Tobe
"Right now, almost eight million adults in Canada (about one in four) are affected by high blood pressure. As the population ages, this number will only rise as hypertension almost certainly increases with age," Tobe said. "And it's crazy because high blood pressure is preventable from following a healthy lifestyle."
Read on to learn more about high blood pressure, its risks and how to prevent the condition.
What is high blood pressure?
According to Tobe, "blood pressure is the pressure that's in our blood vessels that is created by the action of the pumping of the heart."
For most people, normal blood pressure levels should be around 140/90 mmHg or lower, or less than 130/80 mmHg for people who have diabetes, as per the Government of Canada.
However, having high blood pressure is pressure that's above those norms. This can lead to our blood vessels wearing out, and can cause permanent damage to our organs.
To help people understand the effects of high blood pressure over time, Tobe gives the "garden hose" analogy.
"The aging process leads to narrowing of the arteries that contributes to the higher blood pressure," he said. "I always give an analogy to my patients that if we tighten the nozzle on a garden hose, the pressure rises. And as we age, our arteries tend to get smaller leading to progressive rises in blood pressure."
How does lifestyle affect high blood pressure?
A person's lifestyle dramatically impacts their ability to develop high blood pressure, Tobe shared.
Specifically, the health expert revealed the food we eat and how much we exercise can be key contributors to the condition.
"If our lifestyle and diet is full of sodium, remembering that 80 per cent of the sodium in our diets comes from fast food and processed foods, it's like we're turning the tap on for that garden hose, pushing more volume into the hose and raising the pressure," Tobe said. "And if we don't exercise our body and stay fit, or if we're sedentary, we're causing premature aging or narrowing of our blood vessels."
"Often, there are no glaring signs and symptoms of high blood pressure until it's too late."Dr. Sheldon Tobe
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Tobe added that many more people have become more sedentary — particularly the elderly who can "least afford" to lose what fitness they had.
Moreover, the expert said there's been "a lot more" alcohol consumption than there once was, which also drives high blood pressure.
What are the signs and symptoms of high blood pressure?
"Unfortunately, one of the only ways we know if someone has high blood pressure is by diagnosing and measuring it," said Tobe. "Often, there are no glaring signs and symptoms of high blood pressure until it's too late, and that's why it's known as the 'silent killer.'"
Despite the fact that most people with high blood pressure have no symptoms, the Government of Canada notes that dizziness, headaches, vision problems and shortness of breath can be possible warning signs.
Since many people were unable to see their health care providers in the thick of the pandemic, Tobe added that a large number of people went undiagnosed.
"People who were locked down and who developed high blood pressure during the pandemic have largely gone undiagnosed by their doctors, which is concerning," he expalined. "And the longer it takes from undiagnosis to treatment, the harder it is to keep under control."
What are the risks of having high blood pressure?
There are plenty of risks of having high blood pressure. It's a condition that can lead to several deadly health problems without adequate treatment.
"As a health-care professional, high blood pressure is one of the reasons why people have a loss of kidney function that ends up leading to dialysis. More scary than that, uncontrolled high blood pressure is a major cause of stroke that robs patients of their cognitive abilities and precludes to dementia," he said.
"Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a major cause of stroke, that robs patients of their cognitive abilities and precludes to dementia."Dr. Sheldon Tobe
High blood pressure puts people at a greater risk for heart disease, loss of brain function and loss of eyesight, according to Health Canada.
If left untreated, a person with hypertension can develop heart problems, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, dementia and erectile dysfunction.
"To me, it's almost worse than death," Tobe said. "If gone untreated, all the blood vessels in the body are wearing out prematurely. All our important organs are becoming damaged — and it's all preventable."
How can I prevent high blood pressure?
"To prevent long-term effects of high blood pressure, it's important that we diagnose it. Go to your doctor frequently to monitor your levels," Tobe suggested.
If you cannot get to see your doctor or a health-care professional easily, you can go to the pharmacy and measure your levels on a self-serve blood pressure device. Or, you can buy a blood pressure device to measure your levels at home.
Additionally, a key way to help prevent high blood pressure is to stay physically active.
"Physical activity for 40 minutes four or more days of the week is recommended," Tobe indicated. "If someone has a disability, any sort of movement is great. But something is better than nothing, so even getting up and walking for five minutes a day is much better than being sedentary."
The nephrologist also recommends people watch what they eat and drink.
"Consuming salt and alcohol in moderation is best," he explained.