What causes high blood pressure?

AROUND one in three British adults have the condition – but half of those have no idea.

High blood pressure is a serious condition that raises the risk of death and multiple harmful health problems.

The only way to know whether you have high blood pressure is to have it measured – sometimes once a year if you are an "at-risk" person.

So what causes high blood pressure – also known as hypertension – and could it mean you need to get checked urgently?

First, it is easiest to explain what blood pressure is.

Pressure in the arteries helps to get blood around the body.

It goes up and down throughout the day, but if it is consistently high, it’s a problem.

It means the heart is having to pump harder to get blood around the body, which can lead to all sorts of problems.

When pressure is too high it can cause the arteries to lose their stretchiness and become stiff or narrow.

This allows for fatty material to block them and cause heart attacks and strokes, sometimes fatal.

Pressure on the artery walls can also damage organs, with complications including vision loss, dementia, heart falure, an aneurysm and kidney disease.

High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of death, despite being both largely preventable and treatable.

It is often called a "silent killer".

What causes high blood pressure?

Doctors may not be able to pinpoint the exact reason why high blood pressure occurred because there may be many risk factors present. 

Some people are more likely to get high blood pressure due to having “risk factors”.

Risk factors that are unchangeable include:

  • Age – if you are over 65
  • Family medical history – if have a relative with high blood pressure
  • Ethnicity – if you are of black African or black Caribbean descent

Socioeconomic status – if you live in a deprived area

Many risk factors, however, can be challenged. 

Making lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of getting high blood pressure, even if the odds are against you because you are over 65, for example.

"Most people develop high blood pressure because of their diet, lifestyle or medical condition”, the British Heart Foundation says.

Being overweight

Being overweight forces your heart to work harder to pump blood around your body, which can raise your blood pressure.

If you do need to lose some weight, it's worth remembering that just losing a few pounds will make a big difference to your blood pressure and overall health, the NHS says.

A bad diet and lack of exercise

If you don’t eat healthily, you could be putting yourself at risk of hypertension.

Too much salt is a particular problem because the more you eat, the higher your blood prssure will be.

Focus on a diet low in saturated fat, salt and sugar, while focusing on fibre, wholegrain rice, bread and pasta, and plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Exercising helps to keep the heart and blood vessels healthy while also keeping weight at a stable level. 

Drinking too much alcohol or coffee

Regularly drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure over time, the NHS says. 

And keep in mind that alcohol contains calories and may contribute to unwanted weight gain — a risk factor for high blood pressure.

The UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines advise that people should not regularly drink more than more than 14 units a week to keep health risks from alcohol low.

Caffeine should also be kept to a safe level – any more than four cups of a coffee a day could lead to hypertension, the NHS says.

Coffee and tea lovers are warned they should keep an eye on caffeine from other sources, such as energy drinks.

Smoking

Smoking causes the walls of the arteries to get sticky as well as narrow.

It prevents blood from flowing as properly which could lead to heart attack or stroke.
While it is not a direct cause of high blood pressure, it can cause an instant rise to pressure, heart rate and reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to the body’s cells. It is known to be dangerous to the circulatory system. 

Not getting much sleep 

A regular lack of sleep may lead to high blood pressure, studies have found.

It's thought that sleep helps your body control hormones needed to regulate stress and metabolism, the Mayo Clinic says.

Over time, a lack of sleep could cause swings in hormones, leading to high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease.

When you sleep, blood pressure goes down. . Having sleep problems means your blood pressure stays higher for a longer period of time.

Conditions and medications

Sometimes, in a small number of people, doctors are able to find the exact cause of high blood pressure and this can help them to treat it.

In about one in 20 cases, high blood pressure happens as the result of an underlying health condition or taking a certain medicine, the NHS says.

Conditions or medications that lead to high blood pressure include:

  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Long-term kidney infections
  • Obstructive sleep apnoea 
  • Hormone problems such as an underactive thyroid
  • Lupus
  • Pregnancy
  • Contraceptive pill
  • Recreational drugs

Are you at risk?

High blood pressure usually doesn’t have any symptoms so it’s important to get checked regularly.

Healthy adults aged over 40 should have their blood pressure checked at least once every five years, the NHS says.

But this should be once a year if you have any of the risk factors described above.

Blood pressure readings are done at your GP surgery, some pharmacies and some workplaces.

People in England aged between 40 and 74 will also be offered a reading as part of their NHS Health Check.

You can also test your blood pressure at home using a home testing kit.

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