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Understanding Blood Pressure

blood-pressure-monitor-350930_640By Dr. Mary O’Brien MD

Blood pressure (BP) is a measurement of the force exerted against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood to all the tissues and organs of the body. The more blood the heart pumps and the narrower the arteries, the higher the blood pressure.

BP is measured using an inflatable arm cuff and a pressure gauge. The reading is given in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and includes two numbers: an upper number (systolic pressure) that reflects the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts and pumps blood into the arteries [comma deleted] and a lower number (diastolic pressure) that is a measure of the pressure in the arteries as the heart relaxes after contraction (between beats).

When BP readings are found to be consistently elevated, a diagnosis of high blood pressure (hypertension) can be made. Chronic hypertension increases the risk of serious health problems, including heart attack, heart failure, kidney failure, and stroke. These complications are often referred to as end-organ damage because damage to these organs is the end result of long-standing hypertension.       Unfortunately, hypertension may be undetected for many years because it is typically slow to develop — and quite often asymptomatic. It has been estimated that one out of every five U.S. adults with high BP does not know that she has it.

The American Heart Association (AHA) estimates that hypertension affects approximately one in three adults in the United States. However, the prevalence of elevated BP that is either below the cut-off point for hypertension or undetected is much higher. For example, in 2012, 31 percent of all U.S. adults aged 18 years and older were hypertensive, and an additional 31 percent had pre-hypertension (blood pressure that is higher than normal but not yet in the high BP range).

Moreover, among individuals with hypertension, only about half (47 percent) have their condition under control even though seven in 10 hypertensive U.S. adults use medication to treat the condition.  These numbers are consistent with the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Despite recent advances in the medical treatment of hypertension, and the introduction of public health campaigns designed to increase awareness of this condition, hypertension remains a significant public health problem in the United States. Our home-study course will address the definition, symptoms, causes, risk factors, complications, and treatment options for hypertension. Information about these components can provide the necessary tools to reduce the prevalence of hypertension and related health problems.