Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a lot more common than you probably realize. In the Philippines, about one of three adults have hypertension.
A lot of factors come in to play. Part of this is our rapidly changing environment. Throughout the world, human health is being shaped by powerful forces such as aging, rapid urbanization and the globalization of unhealthy lifestyles.
Just look around you — fast food chains, burger joints, cheap and unhealthy food options now surround us. We don’t walk as much, don’t go outside as much as we should and increasingly rely on technology, reducing our need to get up and be active.
As a result, both wealthy and resource-constrained countries are now faced with similar disease patterns with the populations in low- and middle-income countries which are disproportionately affected due to weak health systems.
One of the most striking examples of this shift is the fact that non -communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung diseases have overtaken infectious diseases as the world’s leading causes of death. Globally, cardiovascular diseases account for most NCD deaths, or 17.5 million people annually, followed by cancers (8.2 million), respiratory diseases (4 million), and diabetes (1.5 million). Of these, complications of hypertension account for 9.4 million deaths every year.
This makes hypertension a considerable public health threat. It has long been called the “silent killer” — and for good reason. In most cases, there are no obvious symptoms to indicate that something is wrong. As hypertension rarely causes symptoms in the early stages, many people go undiagnosed.
It is important to keep in mind that everyone is at risk of developing hypertension — primary hypertension, specifically — as we get older, and there is no clear cause. Some people may develop secondary hypertension due to existing, underlying medical conditions like thyroid or kidney disease or even sleep apnea. It can also be a side effect of certain medications.
Equally concerning is the impact hypertension has on your organs. Kidney failure and eye disease are the most common outcomes of unchecked high blood pressure, but blocked arteries also limit blood flow to other vital systems, including the brain, which may result in vascular dementia.
The most widely known medical conditions that stem from unhealthy blood pressure levels are, of course, heart disease and stroke — both of which can lead to deadly consequences. Hypertension is an independent predisposing factor for heart failure, coronary artery disease, stroke, renal disease and peripheral arterial disease. It is the most important risk factor for cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.
Some of the risk factors to this disease include high levels of cholesterol, obesity, physical inactivity, smoking and excessive alcohol use, diabetes and age. Unfortunately, even very healthy individuals who exercise regularly and watch what they eat could have family histories that make them more prone to hypertension.
On a national level, there are significant health and economic gains attached to early detection, adequate treatment and good control of hypertension.
Treating the complications of hypertension entails costly interventions such as cardiac bypass surgery and dialysis which can drain an individual’s and government budgets. We need better preventive and promotive health education initiatives, as well as increased access to early and regular screening. Salt reduction initiatives may also make a major contribution to the prevention and control of high blood pressure.
It is important to remember that hypertension can be controlled and even prevented. Doing so is far less costly, and far safer for patients than having to deal with the complications when hypertension is missed or goes untreated.
The best ways to protect yourself from hypertension are being aware of one’s risk factors and making changes that matter. Engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors at all stages of life, regardless of race, ethnicity or socio-economic status can help keep one’s risk of hypertension in check. Maintaining a healthy weight, a good diet, avoiding too much salt, increasing physical activity, reducing alcohol consumption and not smoking are all things that you can do to reduce your risk of developing hypertension.
For those already diagnosed with hypertension, make sure you are monitored frequently. If you are unable to achieve goal blood pressure readings, alterations to both your pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatment must be made.
Remember that both “healthy” and “unhealthy” individuals can have high blood pressure. So regardless of your current health, specific regimen, or potential risk factors you should take the threat of hypertension seriously. All members of the healthcare team should work together with the patient to promote lifestyle change and blood pressure control with the goal of ultimately taming this silent killer.