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Don't let high blood pressure sneak up on you

High blood pressure is a tricky thing. It can do a lot of damage without you knowing it, and it's the kind of damage that's hard to fix. 

That's why it's important to get your blood pressure checked annually—even if you are young and healthy. 

If you've never really thought about blood pressure, here are the basics. 

Blood pressure is measured with two numbers, like 120/80 mmHg. The first number is the amount of pressure against walls of your blood vessels when the heart beats. The second number is the amount of pressure when your heart relaxes. You have high blood pressure, which we also call hypertension, if you usually have a top number of 130 or higher or a bottom number of 80 or higher.

Over time, high blood pressure damages the blood vessels, making them stiff and less flexible, but the damage doesn't stop there. High blood pressure hurts many different organs: the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys and eyes. It also makes you more susceptible to life-threatening events, like stroke and heart attack. 

Even moderate increases in blood pressure, like consistently getting readings between 120/80 and 140/90, should not be ignored. That's called pre-hypertension. Getting regular exercise, losing a few pounds and making some other lifestyle changes often helps to get this under control. 

Be especially alert if you or your loved ones have these risk factors:

  • family history of high blood pressure
  • ethnic background (some ethnicities, like African-Americans, are at higher risk)
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • inactivity
  • sleep apnea
  • regular, heavy use of alcohol 
  • smoking
  • stress

Also be aware that some prescription and over-the-counter medicines can increase blood pressure. If your blood pressure is creeping up, make sure to tell your doctor if you take: 

  • oral contraceptives 
  • pain killers like ibuprofen and naproxen every day 
  • steroids  
  • cold/flu medicines

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