Risk Factors and Warning Signs of Hypertension

Half of People With Hypertension Have Sleep Apnea ​​Sleep apnea is one of the most well-established risk factors for hypertension. Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder… Aisha Abdullah - May 26, 2023

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a condition in which blood presses against the walls of the blood vessels. Although the condition is common—affecting up to half of all adults—many people are unaware that they have the disease. Even people with a hypertension diagnosis may struggle to manage the condition. If not properly treated, high blood pressure can lead to a host of life-threatening health issues, including kidney disease, heart attack, and stroke. Here are some signs and risk factors of hypertension to watch for to reduce your risk.

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Hypertension Is Often Called the “Silent Killer”

Health issues caused by high blood pressure are the leading cause of death worldwide, claiming around 10 million lives each year. Unfortunately, the condition may go undiagnosed for years because, most of the time, it has no obvious symptoms. High blood pressure develops slowly, and symptoms typically don’t appear until the condition is so advanced or has caused so much damage that it can no longer be ignored. For this reason, hypertension is sometimes called the silent killer. Blood pressure is measured using two numbers: systolic blood pressure (pressure on the arteries during a heartbeat) over diastolic blood pressure (pressure in arteries between heartbeats). A high blood pressure reading is a systolic higher than 120 and a diastolic higher than 80. A consistently high blood pressure reading is the only foolproof red flag for high blood pressure. But knowing your risks for developing the condition can help you prevent or detect it as early as possible.

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Most Symptoms Linked to High Blood Pressure Are Signs of a Hypertensive Crisis

Some symptoms that are commonly associated with high blood pressure have never been definitively linked to the condition. That includes headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nosebleeds. Again, the vast majority of people with hypertension don’t experience any symptoms at all. But when blood pressure suddenly increases to an extremely high level, it can trigger a hypertensive crisis. This medical emergency occurs when blood pressure is 180/120 or higher. Blood pressure at that level can cause severe headaches, nosebleeds, shortness of breath, chest pain, and anxiety. If not treated immediately, a hypertensive crisis can cause damage to the blood vessels and organs, loss of consciousness, eye damage, kidney failure, stroke, or heart attack. People with untreated or poorly managed high blood pressure are at higher risk for a hypertensive crisis.

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High Blood Pressure Can Damage Your Eyes

Although high blood pressure rarely has symptoms, it can cause symptoms indirectly if it leads to complications. One complication of hypertension is hypertensive retinopathy, which results from damage to the blood vessels in the eyes. Your eyes are full of blood vessels that carry blood and oxygen. High blood pressure can decrease the amount of blood that reaches the retina in the back of the eye. The retina is responsible for capturing light as it enters the eye and processing it into visual images. This reduction in blood flow can result in blurry or distorted vision. In severe cases, hypertensive retinopathy leads to total loss of vision. Managing blood pressure can slow and even reverse the effects of hypertensive retinopathy. Chronic high blood pressure can also damage the optic nerve, which carries signals between the eyes and the brain. Optic nerve damage can cause temporary or permanent blindness.


A Constant Noise in Your Ears May Be a Sign Your Blood Pressure Is High

Tinnitus is a common condition that causes phantom sounds in the ear or ears, such as ringing, buzzing, or humming. Although tinnitus is typically related to hearing loss, injury, or certain medications, it can also be caused by hypertension. Any condition that alters how blood flows in the blood vessels can cause or worsen tinnitus. In people with hypertension, the blood vessels are narrow, causing blood to push against the walls of blood vessels like water in an overfilled balloon. This pressure increases the force of the blood flowing through blood vessels, including those in and around the ears. The result is pulsatile tinnitus, which causes a wooshing or pulsating sound associated with a higher force of blood flow. While pulsatile tinnitus isn’t usually serious, it can become distracting and make sleeping or concentrating difficult. More importantly, the condition may be a sign of hypertension or other blood vessel issues.


High Blood Pressure May Cause Irregular or Fast Heartbeat

Another potential complication of hypertension is an arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat. Arrhythmia occurs when the electrical signals that control the heart’s rhythm are not working properly. This can result in a heartbeat that is too slow, too fast, or erratic. Hypertension is a major risk factor for atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat that affects the atria ( upper chambers of the heart). Atrial fibrillation is characterized by a rapid heartbeat and difficulty pumping blood from the atria to the ventricles (lower heart chambers). High blood pressure forces the heart to work harder to pump blood through the blood vessels to the rest of the body. Over time, the heart muscles and the blood vessels that support them may become overexerted and weaken, disrupting the heart’s electrical system. Hypertension causes around a fifth of atrial fibrillation cases. One study found that up to 80 percent of people with atrial fibrillation also had hypertension.

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Hypertension More Than Doubles Your Risk of Developing Epilepsy

Although the exact relationship between seizures and blood pressure is not fully understood, recent research suggests that high blood pressure dramatically increases the risk of developing epilepsy as an adult. Older research found that people experience temporary spikes in blood pressure during seizures before quickly returning to normal. But a 2021 study found that, in people ages 45 and older, the risk of developing late-onset epilepsy was 2.5 times higher in people with hypertension. What’s more, the study found higher blood pressure corresponded to an increase in epilepsy risk. In other words, people whose blood pressure was on the lower end of the hypertension range had a lower risk than those on the higher end. In addition, people who used medication to manage their blood pressure had a reduced risk compared to those not on medications.

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Family History Is a Major Clue Into Hypertension Risk

The warning signs of hypertension are few and far between. But that doesn’t mean you have to leave it up to chance. There are many steps you can take to increase your chance of detecting high blood pressure early or reduce your risk of developing it altogether. One of the most important risk factors for hypertension is your genetics and family health history. High blood pressure often runs in families. If one of your parents, a grandparent, or a sibling developed hypertension before turning 60, you are twice as likely to have the condition than someone with no family history. It also puts you at higher risk for stroke and heart attack. So it’s very important to learn your family’s health history and pass that information on to your doctor. Even if you are at higher risk for hypertension, it’s not inevitable that you will develop the condition. You can make changes to your lifestyle to reduce other hypertension risk factors, such as improving your diet, exercising, and quitting smoking. / Shutterstock

People at Higher Weights Are Also at Higher Risk of Hypertension

Being overweight is linked to an increased risk of hypertension. Studies show that people with higher weights are more likely to have high blood pressure. Around two-thirds of people with hypertension are classified as overweight, although the exact reason for the relationship is not well understood. There is some evidence that fat accumulation may compress organs, including the kidney, causing water retention and narrowing of the blood vessels. Leptin, the hormone that controls appetite and digestion, also plays a role in regulating blood pressure. This suggests that there may be a more direct relationship between hunger, food intake, and hypertension. Several long-term studies have found that losing even a small amount of weight helps to reduce blood pressure. And there’s plenty of evidence that lifestyle changes that reduce hypertension risk are beneficial to everyone, regardless of weight.


Diabetes Doubles Your Risk of High Blood Pressure

Diabetes and hypertension are closely linked. People with diabetes are twice as likely to have high blood pressure as those without the condition. Normally, the hormone insulin helps the body process sugar (glucose) by moving it from the bloodstream into cells, which use it for energy. Diabetes results from an inability to produce enough insulin or insulin that doesn’t work properly. As a result, glucose builds up in the blood and causes damage to tissues and organs throughout the body. The blood vessels are particularly vulnerable to high blood sugar levels, putting people with diabetes at high risk for hypertension and other cardiovascular problems. Diabetes-related kidney damage can also contribute to blood pressure issues. Around two-thirds of people with diabetes deal with high blood pressure. Having both conditions increases the risk of serious complications, including heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure. Many risk factors for hypertension overlap with those for type 2 diabetes, so managing one can help control the other.

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An Unhealthy Diet Can Raise Your Blood Pressure

Diet plays an important role in managing blood pressure. Eating an unhealthy diet increases your risk for hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet was developed to help people with hypertension reduce their blood pressure. The diet is also beneficial for people at risk of developing hypertension by keeping their blood pressure in check. DASH limits consumption of saturated and trans fat, red meat, sodium, and added sugar, which have all been linked to a higher risk of developing high blood pressure. In addition, the diet is high in nutrients like potassium, calcium, and magnesium that help regulate blood pressure. Fiber and protein are also important staples in the diet. Any diets to prevent or treat high blood should include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, fish and healthy, nuts and legumes, and unsaturated fats.

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Inactivity Increases Your Risk of High Blood Pressure by 50 Percent

Having a sedentary or inactive lifestyle is very bad for your heart and overall health. People who are inactive have up to 50 percent higher risk of developing hypertension than those who are active. When you’re physically active, your blood vessels dilate or widen. This keeps them strong and flexible, making it easier for blood to flow through your body and reducing the risk of damage. Regular exercise has been shown to keep your heart and blood vessels healthy. And it doesn’t take much. Just 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity daily can do wonders for your blood pressure. That may include walking, running, swimming, dancing, yoga—anything that gets you moving and your heart pumping can help you keep hypertension at bay.


Kidney Disease Can Lead to Hypertension and Vice Versa

Like diabetes, kidney disease is closely linked to high blood pressure. The kidneys are the body’s filtration system, removing waste from the body in the form of urine. One of the kidney’s main functions is keeping body fluids balanced, which helps regulate blood pressure. When the kidney isn’t functioning, such as in chronic kidney disease, blood pressure may decrease as a result of increased fluid. Hypertension is also one of the leading of kidney disease. High blood pressure can restrict blood flow to the kidneys, making it harder for the organ to function. The blood pressure increases as fluid builds up in the body, further restricting blood flow. Over time, this leads to chronic kidney disease and kidney failure. Managing blood pressure can help alleviate the effects of kidney disease.

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Half of People With Hypertension Have Sleep Apnea

​​Sleep apnea is one of the most well-established risk factors for hypertension. Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that causes pauses in breathing during sleep due to restriction of the airways. The most obvious symptom of sleep apnea is snoring, but the condition can lead to serious health issues. When you sleep, your blood pressure naturally decreases as your body rests. This drop in blood pressure is significantly less in people with obstructive sleep apnea. Even after waking, people with the condition experience higher than normal blood pressure. In fact, 30 to 40 percent of people with hypertension also have obstructive sleep apnea. One theory of why sleep apnea may increase blood pressure is that it overstimulates the part of our nervous system that regulates involuntary actions like breathing, heart rate, and opening of blood vessels.

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Heavy Drinking and Smoking Put You at Risk For Hypertension

People who drink heavily are up to twice as likely to develop hypertension. Heavy drinking is usually defined as two or more alcoholic drinks a day. The more a person drinks, the higher their risk is. And yes, that includes red wine, which is often considered to be heart-healthy. Like most things, alcohol is best in moderation. Reducing alcohol consumption is one of the first things doctors recommend for people who have or are at high risk for high blood pressure. The relationship between smoking and hypertension is not as clear-cut. Smoking causes a temporary spike in blood pressure, but it’s unclear if the habit increases long-term hypertension risk. However, cigarette smoke is associated with plaque build-up in the arteries, a condition associated with high blood pressure. There’s no question that quitting smoking and not drinking excessively are beneficial to your cardiovascular health.


Loneliness Can Be Dangerous to Your Blood Pressure

Being socially isolated isn’t just bad for your mental health; it can also harm your cardiovascular health. One study found that women with little to no social support network had 15 percent more likely to have high blood pressure. Women who didn’t participate in regular social activities had a 30 percent higher risk. Interestingly, the study didn’t find a similar link between socializing and hypertension in men. However, other research suggests that loneliness is closely associated with high blood pressure in older adults, regardless of gender. Some studies have even found that social isolation can increase the risk of hypertension-related disease as much as smoking. In addition, loneliness is associated with a shorter life expectancy, at least partially due to the increased risk of chronic diseases. So, do your heart and mind a favor and spend time with family and friends.


Too Much Sugar Puts You at Risk for Hypertension

When people think of hypertension risk factors, salt is usually the number one suspect—with good reason. High-sodium diets have long been considered a major contributor to high blood pressure. Most hypertension diets dramatically reduce salt intake. Salt in the blood helps regulate the amount of fluid in the body. Too much salt can through off that balance, causing an increase in blood pressure. There’s no doubt that cutting salt is good for hypertension. But it turns out that another white crystal on your kitchen table may be just as, if not more, important for managing blood pressure. Recent studies have found a link between high sugar consumption and high blood pressure. Diets high in sugar are also associated with a 3-fold increase in cardiovascular disease risk.

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Vitamin D Deficiency May Make You Vulnerable to Hypertension

Vitamin D is most well-known as vital to bone health by helping the body absorb calcium. However, the nutrient may also play an important role in the health of the blood vessels. Research suggests that people with vitamin D deficiency have an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. So, making sure that you get enough vitamin D is an important part of maintaining overall health, especially as you age. But that doesn’t mean you need to take vitamin D supplements to prevent hypertension. In fact, there’s little evidence that the supplement can help prevent or treat the condition, and taking too much can cause serious health issues. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight. It costs nothing, and only around 10 minutes a day is needed. You can also get the vitamin through your diet by eating foods rich in nutrients, such as fatty fish, eggs, and mushrooms. Some foods, including milk, cereal, and orange juice, are also fortified with vitamin D.

Thyroid Problems Can Impact Blood Pressure

The thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate many vital body functions, including breathing, heart, digestion, and growth. Unsurprisingly, the thyroid also plays a role in regulating blood pressure. One hormone produced by the thyroid controls the dilation, or relaxation of arteries, which impacts blood pressure. The gland also supports the normal function of the kidney and heart, both of which closely affect blood pressure. Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones. This can cause hypertension by weakening heart muscles, causing kidney dysfunction, or increasing the rigidity of the blood vessels. The production of excessive thyroid hormone, or hypertension, can also lead to hypertension by overexerting heart muscles.

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High Blood Pressure Is a Side Effect of Certain Medications and Supplements

Many common medications and supplements can raise blood pressure and increase your hypertension risk. Studies show that the two most common over-the-counter pain relievers, NSAIDs (ibuprofen and naproxen) and acetaminophen (also called paracetamol), can raise blood pressure. Some cough and cold medicines may have the same effect. Certain medications to treat depression, anxiety, and ADHD can cause spikes in blood pressure, as can some hormonal birth control. Herbal supplements, including ginseng, licorice root, and guarana, may also increase blood pressure. Like conventional medicines, these supplements shouldn’t be taken without consulting a doctor, especially if you have or are at risk of hypertension.

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Early Air Pollution Can Trigger High Blood Pressure Later in Life

Exposure to air pollution has been linked to an increased risk for hypertension. One recent study found that people who live in areas with moderate to high levels of air pollution had an increased incidence of hypertension. Another study found that exposure to air pollution in childhood increases a person’s risk of developing hypertension later in life. Being constantly exposed to pollutants in the air takes a toll on the blood vessels, increasing the risk of high blood pressure, dementia and cardiovascular disease. Most people are exposed to some level of air pollution on a daily basis. One way to reduce exposure is to monitor air quality and avoid going outside without a high-quality mask when air pollution is high.


Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Heart – Why High Blood Pressure is a “Silent Killer”

Mayoclinic – Hypertensive crisis: What are the symptoms?

Health Central – High Blood Pressure Unusual Symptoms: Could What You Feel Be More Serious?

AARP – 12 Surprising Things That Can Raise Your Blood Pressure

Cleveland Heart Lab – 4 Surprising Causes of High Blood Pressure

Very Well Health – Hypertension: Symptoms, Complications, When to Get Help

Good Rx – These 10 Medications Can Raise Your Blood Pressure

Mayoclinic – DASH diet: Healthy eating to lower your blood pressure