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The Effects of Hypertension and High Blood Pressure on Strokes

Blood pressure cuff

Over 40% of the US population are not able to recognize the symptoms of a stroke. Could you? Identifying the symptoms of a stroke isn't difficult, once you know what they are. Understanding the symptoms of and how to respond to a stroke could save someone's life someday—even yours. Beyond that, learning about strokes can help prevent a loved one from experiencing a stroke in the first place. But did you know that you can actually prevent a stroke? To understand how to stop a stroke from happening, you first have to understand what takes place in the body when a stroke hits and why they happen in the first place.

What Is a Stroke?

A stroke occurs when a part of the brain becomes deprived of blood and oxygen, which typically happens when a blood vessel ruptures or becomes blocked. This causes cell death in the area of the brain that would normally be supplied by the affected blood vessel. Because different parts of the brain control different movements, sensations, and functions of the body, the way a person is affected by their stroke can vary significantly.

Strokes can also vary widely in severity, but stroke is consistently listed as one of the leading causes of death in the United States, contributing to the death of nearly 130,000 people in the US every year. Sadly, this accounts for nearly 1 in every 20 deaths.Chances are, you know or will know someone affected by stroke. One person in the US experiences a stroke every 40 seconds, and a person dies from a stroke about every 4 minutes.

Pretty scary stuff.

But here's the good news: Despite how serious of a health problem stroke can be, it is preventable. In fact, it's the leading preventable cause of disability. One of the most important things you can do to protect you and your loved ones is to take control of the many lifestyle-related factors which can increase your risk of having a stroke. After quitting cigarette smoking, high blood pressure is the single most important risk factor to control.

What is High Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is a measure of how hard your heart has to work to pump blood throughout the body. Specifically, it's a measure of the pressure of blood against the walls of your arteries (in millimeters of Mercury, or mm Hg) when your heart is contracting (systole) and relaxing (diastole).

This is why you see two numbers when your blood pressure is read. The top number represents your systolic pressure, and the bottom number represents your diastolic pressure. Textbook "normal" is 120/80 mmHg, but it's normal to have variability in this number, especially since so many things (including medications, foods, stress, time of day, etc.) can influence it.

What's not normal is when your systolic pressure rises to 130 or higher, and/or your diastolic pressure rises to 80 or higher. If these numbers stay elevated, a person can be said to have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension (elevated blood pressure occurs when a person's systolic pressure is between 120 and 130, and/or their diastolic pressure is between 80-89).

Hypertension is a common problem, currently affecting almost half of the US adult population (46% of us). Known as the "silent killer," it can drastically increase a person's risk of health problems often without showing any obvious signs other than the reading itself (which is why getting your blood pressure checked on a routine basis is so important).

The Relationship Between High Blood Pressure & Stroke

High blood pressure contributes to the development of multiple health conditions including glaucoma, heart failure, kidney disease, and yes, stroke. "Not only is high blood pressure one of the leading risk factors for stroke, but it is also one of the most controllable risk factors, as well," said Jennifer Juhl Majersik, MD, MS, associate professor of neurology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Think of it this way: The problem with blood pressure is that it forces your heart to work that much harder. This can damage your heart, causing it to misfire or beat irregularly. Plus, the increased pressure inside your arteries hardens them over time and leads to the build-up of hard plaque ( atherosclerosis) that can cause narrowing or closure of your arteries, including the ones supplying blood to your brain.

If this happens in the brain, a stroke occurs.

How to Prevent High Blood Pressure

Scientific research provides compelling evidence that high blood pressure and stroke are closely linked. But while there is no cure for high blood pressure, it can be prevented and well-managed with the help of your physician.

  • Adopt a healthier diet. Specifically, consume less salt and sugar and eat more veggies, fruit, and lean animal protein.
  • Stay physically active. Daily exercise strengthens your heart and promotes increased blood flow throughout your body.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese only puts more strain and pressure on your circulatory system.
  • If you snore consistently or have stopped breathing in your sleep, let your primary care doctor know, these are symptoms of sleep apnea, which is a cause of high blood pressure
  • Minimize alcohol intake. Alcohol, along with certain other things such as grains and sugar, promotes inflammation within the body, which can damage your arteries.
  • Work with your doctor. Take all medications as prescribed and get your blood pressure checked regularly. That way, you'll know how your positive lifestyle changes are impacting your health.

Remember: by doing what you can to prevent high blood pressure, you can also reduce your risk of stroke at the same time. So talk to your doctor about high blood pressure and learn more about how you can help you and your family.

Learn more about how to properly track your blood pressure here.