Most people are aware of the severity of heart diseases, but not everyone is aware of the intrinsic link between high blood pressure and heart diseases. Left untreated, or without proper management, high blood pressure can slowly cause damage to your body for years before symptoms actually start to show. Your heart could be at risk of serious damage long before you even realise it.
What is high blood pressure, and what causes it?
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, happens when your blood is pushed against the walls of your vessels and arteries. This motion exerts excessive pressure and strain onto their walls, causing long-term damage.
The ideal blood pressure range is somewhere between 90/60 to 120/80.
Not sure what that means? The top number in your reading, or systolic pressure, indicates the level of pressure in your arteries during your heart muscle contractions. The bottom number, meanwhile, is your diastolic pressure, which shows you the same pressure level when your heart muscle is between beats. Your blood pressure is considered high when it reads more than 130/80.
The leading cause of high blood pressure is lifestyle - poor diet, and lack of exercise. Other factors that contribute to its development include:
You are also more likely to get high blood pressure if your family has a history of the condition. If you have been diagnosed with it, you should be aware of how it can affect your heart.
What heart diseases are you at risk of developing?
The hazardous effects of high blood pressure can go beyond your vessels and arteries. It can affect your entire blood circulation system, at the centre of which is your heart. When the whole system is weak or damaged, your heart can be at risk.
The strain that high blood pressure puts on your vessels and arteries is a precursor to many cardiovascular (heart) diseases. The main ones to look out for are coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, and an enlarged left heart.
Coronary artery disease
The relationship between high blood pressure and coronary artery disease is rooted in atherosclerosis, a process in which your arteries become narrow and weak due to the buildup of plaques. These plaques are made up of fat and cholesterol. Coronary artery disease is dangerous because it puts you at risk of experiencing a heart attack. In addition, when your arteries are severely blocked, it gets harder for blood to flow to your heart and supply it with the oxygen and nutrients it needs.
A heart attack, medically known as myocardial infarction, occurs when fatty plaque in the wall of the artery gets inflamed and ruptures. This causes a blood clot to quickly form in the artery, blocking blood flow, disrupting the supply of oxygen to the heart muscles, and causing damage to part of the heart muscle. Without prompt treatment, the affected heart tissue dies and the heart is at risk of permanent failure. Heart attacks can be fatal, and are currently the second leading cause of death in Singapore.
Heart failure occurs when your heart is no longer able to pump sufficient blood for your body. If you have high blood pressure or coronary artery disease, your heart may gradually weaken due to insufficient blood supply through the narrowed arteries, eventually resulting in heart failure. Signs of heart failure include breathlessness, tiredness, swelling in the legs, and can result in death.
Enlarged left heart
An enlarged left heart muscle (left ventricular hypertrophy) refers to the thickening of the walls of your heart’s left ventricle, which is your heart’s main pumping chamber. High blood pressure can cause the left ventricle to work harder than it should, causing the muscle tissue in the chamber wall to thicken, resulting in an enlarged left heart. This condition is commonly found in those who have uncontrolled high blood pressure, and can contribute to higher risk of a heart attack or stroke.
What can you do about your high blood pressure?
Apart from following your doctor’s advice, here are additional steps to help you manage your condition and risk.
1. Eat healthily and maintain a healthy weight
A healthy diet that is rich in vegetables, low in salts, sugar and processed foods can help lower your blood pressure. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, is one that is rich in fruits and vegetables with less sodium and reduced fat, has been shown to lower the blood pressure of participants in just a few weeks, based on the results from clinical trials. If you are overweight, every kilogram shed lowers your blood pressure by around 1mmHg.
2. Get regular exercise
Regular exercise makes your heart stronger, which in turn helps to lower your blood pressure. Aim to get in about 150 minutes of exercise per week, prioritising aerobic (cardio) activities of moderate intensity. Discuss with your doctor about an ideal exercise plan that suits your overall health profile.
3. Screen your heart regularly
Having high blood pressure means you are at risk of heart disease. Preventive heart screening is an effective way to identify hidden heart disease risks. Commit to regular heart screenings as you work with your doctor to lower your blood pressure.
Article reviewed by Dr Michael Macdonald, cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospitals
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