What is hypertension? The warning signs and symptoms of the 'silent killer'

If left untreated, hypertension can lead to serious medical complications.
More than 7.2 million Canadians have hypertension. (Photo via Getty images)

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Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, can lead to serious health complications if it’s left untreated. According to one Canadian doctor, management and treatment of hypertension has only gotten worse throughout the pandemic.

Dr. Hassan Mir, a cardiologist and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, says fewer doctor visits during lockdowns has led to many under-diagnosed and under-managed cases of hypertension.

According to Hypertension Canada, more than 7.2 million Canadians have hypertension and nearly the same amount of people are at risk of the chronic disease “without preventative action.”

What is hypertension?

Hypertension is "the measurement of the pressure or force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls." The Cleveland Clinic says when someone has hypertension, it means the pressure against the blood vessel walls in your body is consistently too high.

There are two types of high blood pressure; primary high blood pressure, which is caused by factors like aging, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise, and secondary high blood pressure, which is caused by other medical issues, including kidney or hormonal problems and certain medications.

Men are more likely to be diagnosed with high blood pressure up until a certain age.
High blood pressure can be caused by various factors, including age, ethnicity, and gender. (Photo via Getty images)

What are the signs and symptoms of hypertension?

High blood pressure is called a “silent killer” because you may not have any warning signs.

Once symptoms show up, they can include headaches, nosebleeds, irregular heart rhythms and vision changes. More serious cases of hypertension can lead to fatigue, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and muscle tremors.

Who is at risk of developing hypertension?

High blood pressure can be caused by various factors, including ones you can’t control like age, ethnicity, and gender.

Mir says males are more likely to have higher, uncontrolled blood pressure.

“However, this pattern appears to reverse with age with females over the age of 60 being more likely to have higher, uncontrolled blood pressure than males of the same age range," he explains.

There are other factors that can cause women to develop high blood pressure, the Heart and Stroke Foundation says, including pregnancy, birth control and menopause.

Some lesser-known influences on our blood pressure can be our daily lifestyle habits such as:

  • Lack of exercise

  • Consuming too much sodium

  • Drinking too much alcohol

  • Being overweight

  • Smoking and vaping

  • Stress

You can use a blood pressure monitor to track your blood pressure.
Although you can monitor your blood pressure on your own, hypertension needs to be diagnosed by a medical professional. (Photo via Getty images)

How is hypertension diagnosed?

Although you can monitor your blood pressure at home or at your local pharmacy using a blood pressure monitor, hypertension needs to be diagnosed by a medical professional.

Mir says the cut offs for high blood pressure are slightly different depending on who you are and what underlying risk factors you have.

“If somebody is diabetic the threshold for us to say, ‘you’re hypertensive’ is lower than if you’re just an otherwise healthy person with no previous diagnoses,” he tells Yahoo Canada.

A healthy diet is important when it comes to managing hypertension.
Adding plenty of fruits, vegetables and high fibre to your diet is important for anyone diagnosed with hypertension. (Photo via Getty images)

How is hypertension treated?

When it comes to treating high blood pressure, Mir says doctors will typically try to treat it with a non-pharmacological approach before turning to medication.

Making lifestyle changes can have a major impact on your blood pressure health. Mir recommends 30 to 45 minutes of exercise of moderate intensity per day, and says adding plenty of fruits, vegetables and high fibre to your diet is beneficial as well. As for salt, that needs to be cut down.

Mir notes that many people mistakenly assume alcohol will help reduce stress or their blood pressure, but it can actually cause them to increase. He recommends limiting alcohol intake to one standard drink a day, and limiting how much you smoke.

If these lifestyle adjustments don’t work, then doctors will turn to medication. Doctors will choose the medication based on a patient’s blood pressure measurements and health.

The medications that can be used include diuretics, which help your kidneys eliminate sodium and water from the body, and calcium channel blockers, which help relax the muscles of your blood vessels.

Mir says high blood pressure needs to be taken seriously because if left untreated it can lead to other serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, and kidney damage.

“Untreated high blood pressure can have major implications on reducing quality of life and quantity of life and swift diagnosis and treatment is vital,” Mir says.

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