High blood pressure might have no symptoms — that's why it's called a silent killer. But there's no mistaking the number of life-threatening conditions it can lead to and why taking steps to avoid or control it has a longer, healthier life as your chief benefit.
High blood pressure (or hypertension, in medical terms) is a major health problem worldwide. According to the most recent statistics from the American Heart Association (AHA), about 103 million American adults — roughly half of the adult population in the U.S. — currently have high blood pressure. That's part of the 1.13 billion people around the globe who have high blood pressure, according to the World Health Organization.
Because high blood pressure doesn't announce itself with warning signs, people generally don't know they have it until it's detected through a blood pressure reading. According to the AHA, there's no good evidence that high blood pressure causes headaches or nosebleeds — except in an emergency, when pressure reaches 180 over 120 or higher. Blood pressure that rises quickly and severely is known as a hypertensive crisis, explains AHA.
If your blood pressure reading is sharply elevated, you may or may not experience such symptoms as headache, nosebleed, shortness of breath or severe anxiety, says AHA. If, after waiting five minutes, a second reading is just as high but you do not have other worrisome symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medication or adjust your current drug regimen.
However, AHA cautions, if you are having chest pain, numbness or weakness, changes in vision or difficulty speaking, for example, that would be considered a hypertensive emergency requiring immediate attention. Don't wait for another blood pressure reading — call 911.
Read more: What Is Blood Pressure, Exactly?
Specifics on Blood Pressure Risks
High blood pressure can lead to a vast number of serious health consequences over time. According to the Mayo Clinic, conditions that can result from uncontrolled blood pressure include:
- Heart failure
- Heart attack
- Kidney problems
- Metabolic syndrome
- Memory and cognitive problems
- Eye problems
and vision loss
Though all of these consequences are bad for your health, some are even more dangerous than others.
"As a vascular neurologist, I would start at the top and say stroke — blood pressure and tobacco are the number one and two preventable causes of stroke," says William J. Hicks II, MD, codirector of the Comprehensive Stroke Center, OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, Columbus.
"The types of strokes high blood pressure classically can cause are hemorrhagic, or bleeding, strokes. These are the most severe and can cause the highest degree of mortality. It is very important for stroke prevention to monitor your blood pressure."
Dr. Hicks says that brain and memory problems are other often-overlooked side effects of uncontrolled high blood pressure over time.
"The other thing we've learned about is that cognitive changes can occur when your blood pressure is elevated," he says. "There have been studies that have shown if you are at the age of 50 and your systolic blood pressure is greater than 140, which is considered hypertension, and if that continues, your likelihood of getting dementia or cognitive impairment is significantly higher."
A number of other reasons also warrant keeping blood pressure in check. "Other risks include vision loss due to changes to blood vessels in your retina and eyes, your heart of course from heart attacks to heart failure, and kidney disease and failure," Dr. Hicks says. "Another thing that people are always worried about is erectile dysfunction or sexual dysfunction. That can occur, as well as lowering libido in men and women."
Lowering Blood Pressure: Bottom Line
Considering all this, it's easy to understand why keeping blood pressure at a level under 120/80 millimeters of mercury is a good idea, according to the AHA. While getting blood pressure to a healthy level won't lead to an immediate change in how you feel overall, it definitely reduces your risk for a wide variety of medical problems.
Put it all together and it's pretty clear why managing your blood pressure level through lifestyle changes, and medications, if needed, is a good idea.
"Simply put, lowering your blood pressure can save your life," notes Sanjay Shetty, MD, a cardiologist and division chair of cardiology for AtlantiCare in New Jersey. "One study presented at the 2019 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions found that treating blood pressure increased lifespan up to 9 percent," he says.
The study, published in February 2020 by JAMA Cardiology, concluded that intensive blood pressure control (compared with standard measures for controlling blood pressure) improves projected survival by 6 months to 3 years, depending on what age a person starts treatment.
Is This an Emergency?
- American Heart Association: “More Than 100 Million Americans Have High Blood Pressure, AHA Says”
- Mayo Clinic: “High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)”
- William J. Hicks, II, MD, vascular neurologist, codirector, Comprehensive Stroke Center, OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, Columbus, Ohio
- Sanjay Shetty, MD, cardiologist, division chair, cardiology, AtlantiCare, New Jersey
- World Health Organization: “Hypertension”
- AHA: "What Are the Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?"
- AHA: "Hypertensive Crisis: When You Should Call 911 for High Blood Pressure"
- AHA: "The Facts About High Blood Pressure"
- JAMA Cardiology: "Assessment of Long-term Benefit of Intensive Blood Pressure Control on Residual Life Span Secondary Analysis of the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT)"