Know your risks and prevent high blood pressure.

Four Factors That Contribute to Hypertension

by Marcy Brinkley

Hypertension -- high blood pressure -- increases the risk for heart attack, stroke, kidney damage and blindness. While some factors that contribute to high blood pressure, such as race and family history, cannot be changed, factors such as diet, obesity, smoking, inactivity and alcohol consumption can be modified. According to the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure, those with higher-than-normal blood pressure should modify their lifestyle to reduce the risk of complications. People with blood pressure readings higher than 140/90 mm Hg may also require medication or, in some cases, correction of a medical condition causing hypertension.

1. Biological Factors

Certain groups of people are more likely to develop high blood pressure because of genetic factors beyond their control. For example, your risk of developing hypertension increases if close family members have high blood pressure. African Americans and people of Asian and Pacific Island ancestry are more likely to be hypertensive than non-Hispanic white people. Overall, men and women have relatively equal risks of developing hypertension over their lifetime. While middle-age men are slightly more likely than women to have high blood pressure, women age 65 and older have a higher risk than their male peers. Although these factors cannot be changed, people in high-risk groups can take precautions to prevent or delay the development of high blood pressure.

2. Diet and Exercise

Poor eating and exercise habits can contribute to high blood pressure, especially if you weigh more than you should. An overweight person who loses about 20 lbs. can reduce her systolic blood pressure (SBP) -- the top number of the two -- by about 5 to 20 mm Hg. Whether you are overweight or not, following the DASH eating plan -- an acronym that stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension -- can lower SBP by about 8 to 14 mm Hg. This healthful eating plan involves limiting dietary fat and boosting your intake fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and protein. Engaging in moderate aerobic exercise such as hiking, dancing, walking or cycling for at least 30 minutes per day can also drop your SBP a few points.

3. Alcohol and Tobacco

Using alcohol and tobacco can contribute to hypertension. According to an article published in the June 1, 2006 issue of "American Family Physician," cigarette smoking raises your blood pressure by about 3 or 4 mm Hg. Smoking also increases the risk of stroke and heart disease. Limiting alcoholic drinks to 1 or 2 per day can reduce blood pressure by about 3 mm Hg.

4. Medical Conditions

Certain medical conditions -- including sleep apnea, kidney disease and pheochromocytoma, a tumor on the adrenal glands -- can cause secondary hypertension. Treating the underlying condition may reduce blood pressure to normal levels, although results vary according to the patient's general health and the type of medical condition. Secondary hypertension is more likely in people who are younger than 25 or do not respond well to medication. While people with essential or primary hypertension rarely experience symptoms, someone with secondary hypertension is likely to have symptoms of the underlying condition. For example, swollen ankles may indicate kidney disease; snoring and sleepiness during the day are signs of sleep apnea; and weight loss and inability to tolerate heat may indicate an overactive thyroid.

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