You may think your blood pressure is fine because you feel fine. But did you know that most people with hypertension won’t notice any physical signs? “High blood pressure doesn’t have any symptoms until you are significantly at risk of having organ damage,” says family physician Richard Ward, MD. “It’s wrong for people to think that ‘I feel well, therefore I can’t have high blood pressure.’”
What do the numbers mean when blood pressure is taken? The top number (your systolic blood pressure) measures the amount of pressure your blood puts on the walls of your blood vessels when your heart pumps. The bottom number is the diastolic pressure, or the resting pressure between heartbeats. If your blood pressure measures 120/80 or below, it’s considered healthy. But if it measures 140/90 or above (or 130/80 if you have diabetes), you need to be treated.
While anyone can develop high blood pressure, certain individuals are more likely than others to have a problem. Here are five signs you might have hypertension.
1. You’re middle-aged or older
“We see high blood pressure happening at any age, but the risk really starts to accelerate in the 40s,” says Dr. Ward. You can’t turn the clock back. Make sure you’re checking your blood pressure regularly. Many drugstores provide automated blood pressure cuffs for customers to use, and you can also buy home monitors (ask a health professional to demonstrate proper use). These are especially valuable if you’re lax about making regular appointments with a healthcare provider. “The largest group of patients with high blood pressure that is unrecognized—they don’t know it, their doctors don’t know it and they don’t get treated—is middle-aged males, who don’t tend to see us very often,” notes Dr. Ward.
2. You make certain lifestyle choices
If you sit for most of the day, smoke, and eat salty foods, you’re practically the poster child for high blood pressure. All three of these lifestyle choices can put you at serious risk of hypertension. Each week, try to include 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, spread over several days. Even if your job is sedentary, you can take a 10-minute break for a brisk walk. Limit your dietary sodium to 2,300 mg or less a day. And for support to quit smoking, talk to your doctor or call a toll-free helpline.
3. You’re considered obese
A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more is a big-time sign you’re at risk of high blood pressure. That’s especially true if you’re apple-shaped (your weight tends to collect around your waistline) instead of pear-shaped (your weight gathers on your hips and thighs). If the idea of losing 40 or 50 pounds sounds overwhelming, here’s the good news: Even a 10-pound weight loss can reduce your blood pressure. So start small.
4. You have hypertension in the family
If you have a family history of high blood pressure, that puts your own risk higher. What you may not realize is that your ethnic background makes a difference, too. “African-Americans have a slightly increased risk,” Dr. Ward says. If you’re in this group, it’s important to know that your risk may also start earlier, and the blood pressure problem is often more serious.
5. You have a telltale medical history
If you’ve been diagnosed with certain medical conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, high cholesterol, or thyroid disease, then you’re also at risk for hypertension. Medications that treat a health problem can also raise your blood pressure, including antidepressants, decongestants, acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen.