High blood pressure can be a silent killer

By M. ERIC WILLIAMS,

February has been designated as American Heart Month to help people understand common illnesses related to their hearts. The first topic I want to cover is one that is near and dear to many of us out there: high blood pressure (also called hypertension). 

So, what is hypertension and why should you be concerned about it?  To begin, high blood pressure is defined exactly as it sounds: too much force exerted on your blood vessel walls. Think of your blood 

pressure as a person trying to enter through a door. 

If someone is standing on the other side of that door pushing against you, then you must raise the amount of force they put against the door to open it. The top number of our blood pressure, or systolic number, is the amount of force that is applied to opening that door. The bottom number, or diastolic, is the resistance that you must push against to open the door. As the resistance against the door goes up, so does the force required to open it. Or, in medical terms, the higher the diastolic (bottom) number rises, the greater the systolic (top) number must rise to keep the pressure adequate.

Elevated systolic pressure means that your heart must work harder to push against the diastolic force. Your heart does this by stretching just a bit more than normal to increase the systolic pressure that it is

generating with each beat. 

Over time, this will weaken the heart muscle. Think of it like an elastic band in a favorite pair of sweatpants: after stretching the waist band repeatedly, it won’t go back to its original shape. Your heart is much the same. Years of over-stretching will cause the tissue to lose its ability to beat your heart with the force necessary to get blood to your body. When this happens, we are likely to develop diseases such as Congestive Heart Failure. 

Now that we know the dangers of high blood pressure over time, let’s look at the causes. The biggest single factor in causing hypertension is consuming salt. Salt, or sodium, causes extra fluid to accumulate in your blood vessels. 

This extra fluid causes the heart to work harder to pump the increased volume of blood. Think of it like a pump that is designed for an above-ground pool being used for an Olympic-sized pool. That pump can’t circulate that water for very long!

Correcting high blood pressure need not be difficult. It often involves simple changes to your lifestyle and finding the right combination of medications. Your doctor can prescribe medications that can counteract the causes of hypertension in the body. You must do your part as well: shedding any extra weight that you might be carrying as well as reducing the amount of salt in your diet is a great start to getting your blood pressure managed. 

Be wary of foods that are high in sodium content. Soups, cheeses, and deli meats are often shockingly high in salt! Check the nutritional facts on the package and make healthy decisions about what goes into your body. In general, your sodium intake should be less than 2,400 milligrams per day. 

Those with diagnosed hypertension should decrease this amount to 1500 mg or less per day.  Hypertension is sometimes called the ‘silent killer.’ Know your numbers and don’t let high blood pressure sneak up on you. 

Stay safe out there.

M. Eric Williams, MS, NR-P is a Mississippi native and Instructor of Emergency Medicine.  He is a Doctoral Candidate and has 15 years’ experience in healthcare.  If you have questions or comments, you may contact him at eric.williams@jcjc.edu.