High blood pressure—also called hypertension—is a common condition where the pressure (or force) of the blood pushing up against your blood vessel walls is higher than normal. Because the early stages of high blood pressure cause no symptoms, you can have the condition for years without knowing it. It can eventually lead to serious health problems, including heart disease, stroke, blindness, and kidney failure

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in three American adults has high blood pressure. Levels vary significantly by age; about 9 percent of men between 20 and 34 have hypertension, whereas 65 percent of men over 65 have the problem. The numbers for women are even more drastic—2 percent and 80 percent respectively.

What the Numbers Mean

Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers. The top number is the systolic pressure, which is the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats and fills with blood. The bottom number is diastolic pressure, which is the pressure when the heart rests between beats. Normal blood pressure is 120/80. Anything above is considered one of the following:

  • prehypertension: 120-139/80-89
  • stage 1 hypertension: 140-159/90-99
  • stage 2 hypertension: 160 or higher/100 or higher

Learn more about high blood pressure numbers.

Causes and Risk Factors

Primary hypertension, which makes up 90 to 95 percent of all cases of hypertension, has no known cause. It is thought that genetic risk factors (family history) and lifestyle choices (high-fat diets and lack of exercise) increase the odds of developing the condition.

Secondary hypertension is due to another underlying health condition or a side effect of some medications. These causes could include:

  • kidney disorders
  • adrenal gland tumors
  • illegal drugs like cocaine
  • birth control pills
  • other prescription drugs
  • congenital abnormalities of the aorta

Men are more likely to develop hypertension. After menopause, the risk for women goes up significantly. Being overweight or obese and living a sedentary lifestyle can increase blood pressure, as can poor diet. Too much salt, too little potassium, and too much alcohol all increase the risk for high blood pressure. Tobacco use raises blood pressure and damages the artery walls. High levels of stress can cause dramatic increases in blood pressure as well.

Treatment

If you have high blood pressure and are an otherwise healthy adult, your treatment will be focused on getting your blood pressure into the normal range. For many, lifestyle changes—more exercise and a better diet—might be enough. For others, medication might be necessary. There are many types of medication available to treat high blood pressure including:

  • diuretics
  • beta blockers
  • ACE inhibitors
  • ARB's
  • calcium channel blockers
  • alpha blockers
  • alpha-beta blockers
  • alpha-2 receptor agonists

Visit the High Blood Pressure Center for more information.