Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure: What Cardiologists Want You to Know

Some BP risk factors are out of your control, but most are totally in your power.

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High blood pressure, also called hypertension, can increase your risk of a long list of scary-sounding health conditions: heart disease, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, vision loss, and even sexual dysfunction, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Here’s more info about how high BP affects your body.

Another way to look at it: Preventing high BP could help lower your risk for all those other serious conditions. Following a heart-healthy lifestyle and learning your personal risk factors for high blood pressure are crucial components to keeping blood pressure numbers under control.

First things first: high BP doesn’t necessarily cause symptoms, according to Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, Clinical Instructor in Medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital. (Some patients experience subtle side effects of hypertension.) That’s why knowing your risk factors and checking in with your doctor regularly is so important.

These are the risk factors linked to hypertension that cardiologists want you to be aware of.

  • A family history of high BP: “When we think about high blood pressure, the majority of the time, it’s genetic,” says Rachel Bond, MD, cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital.

  • Race and ethnicity: In the America, African Americans are diagnosed with hypertension more often than people of other racial backgrounds, according to AHA.

  • Sedentary lifestyle: Exercising regularly (and avoiding too much time sitting) may boost heart health, which can keep BP numbers low. And remember, the health benefits of exercise go far beyond just lowering your BP.

  • Being overweight or obese: Extra weight puts strain on the heart and circulatory system, according to AHA.

  • An unhealthy diet: A particular concern is a diet high in sodium and processed foods. Not only does an unhealthy diet deprive your body of the nutrients in fresh foods (like fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, and legumes), but the high levels of sodium in processed foods also causes fluid retention in the blood vessels. This increases BP. A 2018 study of 4,480 adults found that increased sodium levels predicted increased BP results, regardless of age, sex, race, and economic status of the participants.  Learn about the DASH diet for a healthy heart here.

  • Smoking: Tobacco can damage, narrow, and harden arteries. Healthy arteries are pliable and can expand when necessary; when the arteries can’t expand, blood pressure rises. Learn more about smoking’s effects on your body here.

  • Excessive alcohol intake: Here’s more info on how much alcohol is safe for a healthy heart.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: This sleep disorder causes patients to repeatedly stop breathing throughout the night, causing them to wake up frequently. “If you have obstructive sleep apnea, that can definitely increase your risk of having high blood pressure,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center. “When we diagnose obstructive sleep apnea and we treat it, we can expect that those blood pressure numbers will come down.”

  • Diabetes: Diabetes can put a strain on your kidneys, which can also affect blood pressure, according to AHA. If untreated, type 2 diabetes can also increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

  • Older age: Your arteries slowly lose some of their elasticity as you age, which makes you more susceptible to higher BP.

  • High cholesterol: Over half of patients who have hypertension also have high cholesterol, according to AHA.

  • Hormones: Interestingly, a woman’s chances of developing high BP increase after menopause, even for women who’ve had healthy BP for most of their lives. For younger people, high BP may be a sign of another underlying condition. For instance, it might indicate an hormone abnormality, according to Dr. Bond.

  • Certain medications: Birth control pills are one example of a medication that may increase blood pressure for some women, particularly women who are overweight or have a personal or family history of high BP or kidney disease.

“Having high blood pressure or having high cholesterol doesn’t mean you have heart disease, Those are risk factors for heart disease,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher. “It’s like saying, someone had a drink and then they went driving. It doesn’t mean they’re going to crash; it increases the risk they’re going to crash.”

Remember: the majority of these high blood pressure risk factors can be modified, which means you can decrease your chances of having high blood pressure—and all the other conditions it’s linked to. Take action: Here are proven ways to lower blood pressure naturally.