Hypertension 101

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    Hypertension

    Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the unequivocal silent killer. Unless you have your pressure checked, you'll never know it's too high until it causes some serious damage. Over time, high blood pressure can wear down your circulatory system, leading to heart attacks, congestive heart failure, kidney failure, stroke, and even brain damage.

    So what do the numbers mean? Doctors measure two aspects of blood pressure -- systolic and diastolic pressures. The top number, systolic, represents the pressure on your veins and arteries when your heart pumps. The one on the bottom, diastolic, represents the pressure when your heart is at rest between beats. Current research has found that a reading of 140 over 90 or higher can do damage over time. A "normal" pressure reading has been dropped to 120 over 80.

    Who has it?

    The National Institutes of Health estimate that about 65 million Americans, or about one in three, have hypertension. Men are more likely to ignore hypertension than women, according to the American Society of Hypertension.

    Who's at risk?
    Nearly any guy can have hypertension. Doctors and scientists don't know exactly what causes it, but many believe that it can be influenced by genetics, diet and stress. Being overweight can also contribute to hypertension.

    Are there any symptoms?
    Unless your blood pressure skyrockets, you probably won't notice that it's too high. However, chronic hypertension can cause fatigue, confusion, vision changes, chest pain, and more.

    How is it diagnosed?
    Any trained health professional can monitor your blood pressure. Accurate over-the-counter monitors are also readily available at most drugstores.

    Are there any treatments?

    Losing weight is usually the first step in treating hypertension and may be enough to make your blood pressure numbers drop. Dieting, light to moderate exercise, and relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga can also help. Your doctor may also prescribe diuretics, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), or alpha blockers.

    A recent study by doctors in Israel found that anti-anxiety treatments may also lower blood pressure in patients who experience hypertensive spikes during the day. The doctors gave the anti-anxiety drug diazepam (Valium) to 19 patients who were in the midst of a hypertensive episode (pressure greater than 190 over 100 for any extended period of time). The drug was just as effective at relieving pressure as the hypertension drug captopril. This study may lead to new anti-anxiety-based hypertension treatments.

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