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Originally Published on UNC Health Talk

Nearly half of all Americans have high blood pressure, and many of them don’t even realize it. That’s a problem, says Ben Walker, MD, a cardiologist with North Carolina Heart & Vascular. High blood pressure—called hypertension—is a type of cardiovascular disease, and it can be a warning sign of bigger problems to come.

“For a lot of people, it’s the precursor for more serious conditions,” Dr. Walker says. “It’s the ubiquitous disease that makes everything worse.”

The good news is that hypertension can be remedied with lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, reducing sodium, managing stress and, if needed, taking medications.

The first step to reducing high blood pressure is to understand how it causes damage in our bodies.

1. Heart failure.

“Heart failure” doesn’t mean the heart stops working completely; it means it doesn’t pump as well. High blood pressure causes the force of blood against the artery walls to be too high. As a result, the heart has to pump harder to work against the high pressure, which causes the heart muscle to thicken and stiffen. This stiffness also keeps the heart from fully relaxing between beats, which means it can’t fill up with enough blood to give the organs what they need.

2. Stroke.

High blood pressure can lead to atrial fibrillation, or Afib, which is defined as an irregular heart rhythm. With Afib, blood pools inside the heart and can form clots. When the clot is pumped away, it may go to the brain and cause a stroke.

3. Aortic dissection.

The aorta is the body’s main artery; think of it as a big pipe that extends from your heart and heads south through your abdomen. High blood pressure can cause the aortic wall to split, which can be fatal because of internal bleeding, organ damage, stroke and other complications.

4. Noncardiovascular complications.

Hypertension doesn’t just wreak havoc in the heart and veins. It can impact the function of other parts of the body too.

High blood pressure can lead to scarring in the kidneys, which impairs their ability to filter blood. That leads to the buildup of toxins, which can cause illness. Hypertension can also damage vision by changing the shape of arteries in the eye.

Now that you know the effects of high blood pressure on your body, be sure to find out your average blood pressure reading so you can be treated if necessary.

Dr. Walker encourages patients to take their blood pressure often. You can use an at-home cuff, which is widely available for purchase online, or a blood pressure machine in a grocery store or pharmacy. Keeping a log and discussing the results with your doctor is a great way to start protecting yourself from complications.

Are you at risk for heart disease? Take a free HeartAware online risk assessment to find out. Looking for a cardiologist? Find one near you.

Ben Walker, MD, is a cardiologist with North Carolina & Vascular. He sees patients in Raleigh, Cary, Holly Springs and Lillington.