There’s a reason why every doctor’s visit, no matter what it’s for, involves having a cuff wrapped around your upper arm and pumped until a nurse or medical assistant stops and says some numbers. Ideally, those numbers are 120 over 80, or slightly lower.
What you may not hear is what those numbers actually mean and why they’re so important. The top number “120’ is your systolic blood pressure, a measurement of the pressure your blood puts on the walls of your blood vessels when your heart contracts and pushes blood through your body. The bottom number “80” is your diastolic blood pressure, the measurement of that same pressure when your heart relaxes and refills with blood.
If your systolic number is between 120 and 129, it’s considered elevated, 130 to 139 is considered at-risk and anything over 140 is high risk. Why does all this matter? Because at-risk or high risk means you’re probably looking at high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
“It’s your entire system that’s being affected by high blood pressure,” explains Dr. Mukesh Sharma, a nephrologist with Sierra Nevada Nephrology Center (SNCC). “Each organ in your body is being pounded by that high blood pressure, which can lead to long term injury of the most vital organs in your body. That’s why it’s so important to know your numbers.”
The challenge is that even though it’s affecting our entire bodies, we may not notice at first.
“Hypertension has been called the silent killer because most of the time the patient will not notice any symptoms,” Dr. Sharma adds. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 45% of the population had hypertension in 2017-2018. By this estimate, more than 100 million people in the United States have hypertension but many don’t know it.”
Of course, not noticing symptoms doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Dr. Sharma goes on to explain that undiagnosed hypertension can cause arteries to stiffen or harden or even close off, which can lead to strokes, heart attacks, aneurysms, vision problems (including blindness), dementia or chronic kidney disease (CKD).
“Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease including stroke and heart disease,” Dr. Sharma says. “Unfortunately many patients will suffer a sudden stroke or heart attack and that may be the first time they actually come to know that they have had high blood pressure for years.”
Dr. Sharma says that all adults need to check their blood pressure at least once or twice a year to make sure they don’t have undiagnosed hypertension.
“Depending on your blood pressure readings, your doctor may just incorporate lifestyle changes with close monitoring of your blood pressure,” he says. “Though others may also need blood pressure medication.”
Blood pressure and its link to chronic kidney disease (CKD)
Dr. Sharma says that high blood pressure can cause CKD, while CKD can also cause high blood pressure.
“The kidneys and circulatory system (heart, blood vessels) play a very fine balancing role in supporting each other,” he says. “If you have uncontrolled hypertension
, it will affect your kidneys at some point. Hypertension is the leading causes of chronic kidney disease along with diabetes.”
“Your kidneys act as filters for your blood, getting rid of metabolic waste and excess fluids,” Dr. Sharma explains. “In order to do that, each kidney has about a million small factories called nephrons. Each nephron is supplied by a very dense network of small arteries. Over a period of time high blood pressure damages those arteries, causing the blood supply to go down.”
In order for the kidneys to perform their function of getting rid of excess waste, they need plenty of blood flow throughout the day. If that blood flow volume decreases, then the kidneys won’t be able to function in a normal way, which leads to CKD.
Dr. Sharma goes on to explain how CKD can also cause hypertension. “In very simple terms, when the kidneys are not working properly, they cannot regulate fluid balance in the right way, thus causing hypertension.”
Keeping blood pressure in a normal range
Understanding the consequences of high blood pressure is good incentive to understand how to control it. Which means it’s time to talk about those old favorites, healthy diet and exercise.
“That old saying that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure applies for any disease, but is especially true for hypertension,” says Dr. Sharma, adding that there are plenty of healthy habits that can be incorporated into a daily lifestyle to control blood pressure.
- Healthy Diet: Avoid an unhealthy diet, particularly one that includes too much sodium. Eat fresh produce and cook at home using little or no salt. Avoid fast food, which is loaded with salt. The American Heart Association shares more specifics.
- Fitness: A good starting goal is at least 150 minutes a week, according to the American Heart Association.
- Weight: Maintain a healthy weight. Know your BMI and keep it below 25. Reducing weight by even 5 to 10 pounds may help to lower blood pressure.
- Alcohol: Restrict alcohol intake to one or two drinks a week.
- Tobacco: Quit smoking.
- Control Stress: Incorporate ways to release stress every day through activities like yoga, exercise, meditation or breathing exercises.
- Sleep: Try to get six to seven hours of good, quality sleep every night.
If members of your family have high blood pressure, you are at a higher risk for developing it as well.
If you have high blood pressure, it’s important to get checked for CKD as well. Schedule a consultation with SNNC at 775-322-4550, to discuss your symptoms or diagnosis. SNNC has twelve physicians and six nurse practitioners serving patients throughout Reno, Sparks, Carson City, Elko, Fallon, Ely and Winnemucca.