What is hypertension?

Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure, which affects anything between 1 in 7 and 1 in 3 Australians and becomes more common as you age. High blood pressure describes where your blood is pumping through your arteries with greater pressure than normal.

This is caused by the state of smaller blood vessels called 'arterioles' - if these are relaxed the blood flows normally, but if they are narrowed the heart must beat more strongly to 'force' the blood through the body. Hardening of the arteries will also result in this happening. This may be a temporary condition, but if it becomes permanent, this is hypertension.

What causes hypertension?

The following things can contribute to and/or worsen hypertension...

  • Being overweight/obese
  • Diabetes
  • Having a family history of hypertension
  • High alcohol intake
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High salt diet
  • Kidney disease
  • Little/no exercise
  • Smoking
  • Some medication (eg non steroidal anti inflammatories NSAIDs, some nasal sprays/drops, some diet pills, some eye drops and some cough medication)

How is blood pressure measured?

Blood pressure is measured using a device called a 'sphygmomanometer' which uses an  inflatable cuff placed around the upper arm to temporarily alter blood flow through the main artery in the arm.  The higher reading is referred to as the 'systolic' figure and the lower is the 'diastolic' figure. It is generally accepted that hypertension is present where the systolic reading is greater than 130 and/or the diastolic reading is greater than 80.

What are the symptoms of hypertension?

Generally there are no symptoms of hypertension, which is why it is important to have your blood pressure tested regularly.

What can hypertension lead to?

The increased stress placed on your arteries by high blood pressure can increase the rate at which the buildup of fatty plaque (artherosclerosis) occurs. Hypertension over a period of time is linked to...

  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Eye disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Stroke

How can hypertension be treated?

As with many heart and related conditions, there is medication for hypertension, however lifestyle changes can result in lower blood pressure, for example...

  • Maintaining a health weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Not smoking
  • Following a high fibre, low fat and low salt diet
  • Reducing alcohol intake

See also our page on Nutrition and Exercise.