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Uncovering the cause of high blood pressure

June 8, 2021 at 8:52 a.m.

High blood pressure can develop without warning and contribute to serious conditions such as heart attack and stroke. Because of this, it's important to know what leads to high blood pressure, so you can keep yours at a healthy level of less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury.

Sodium: A major player

When blood is pumped through your circulatory system, it applies force to the walls of your arteries. Blood pressure is the measure of that force. Too much sodium, which plays a big role in your body's regulation of blood pressure, can cause that force to increase.

Your kidneys use sodium, as well as potassium, to remove excess fluid from your blood. You excrete that fluid as urine. High levels of sodium in your blood cause your arteries to retain this excess fluid, and that increases the pressure applied to your arterial walls.

Controlling your sodium intake helps keep your blood pressure in check. Try to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily to prevent high blood pressure, or limit yourself to 1,500 mg if you're trying to lower your blood pressure. Keep in mind that, for most Americans, the primary sources of dietary sodium are restaurant and processed foods. Cooking more meals at home with fresh, whole ingredients is a simple way to start consuming less sodium.

Other causes

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the most common type of high blood pressure is called primary hypertension. It has no apparent cause and most likely results from a combination of age, lifestyle and environment.

When doctors are able to pinpoint a cause, medical conditions, such as obesity, chronic kidney disease, sleep apnea and thyroid problems, are common culprits. These conditions may impact how your body regulates fluid or sodium levels or interfere with hormones that also play a role in blood pressure. If you have one of these conditions, ask your doctor what you should do to maintain a healthy blood pressure.

Brain, heart and everything else

High blood pressure is commonly known as a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but it can also cause other health conditions that can have a lasting impact on your life. For example:

• Long-term high blood pressure can reduce the blood flow to your retinas, which can damage your eyes and result in blurred or complete loss of vision.

• High blood pressure can damage the blood vessels in your brain and raise your risk for vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia behind Alzheimer's disease.

• High blood pressure can damage the wall of your aorta. This can raise your risk of an aortic aneurysm, a bulge in your aortic wall that is life-threatening when ruptured.

Did you know?

• The human body needs only about 500 milligrams of sodium a day to function properly.

• Most people with high blood pressure have no symptoms, but headaches, nosebleeds and shortness of breath can all be triggered by the condition.

• Compared with women, men are more likely to have high blood pressure before age 55. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to develop the condition after age 55.

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