, is often called a silent killer, because the condition usually has no symptoms. If left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease and stroke. That’s worrisome, considering that one in three Americans currently has the condition – but nearly a third of them don’t know it.

Blood pressure is a measure of the force in the arteries when the heart muscle contracts (called systolic pressure) and when the heart relaxes (called diastolic pressure). Hypertension occurs when blood vessels narrow or become less flexible, a condition called arteriosclerosis, which increases resistance and requires the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. This raises the risk of heart disease.

Measured in millimeters of mercury, or mmHg, hypertension is divided into different stages. Normal blood pressure in adults is 100 to 119 mmHg systolic over 70 to 79 mmHg diastolic (expressed as 100/70 to 119/79), while prehypertension (a precursor to the condition) ranges from 120/80 to 139/89. Stage 1 hypertension is 140/90 to 159/99, and stage 2 is 160/100 and above.

Several factors contribute to the development of high blood pressure, including kidney and adrenal disease, smoking, being overweight, genetics, and stress. Regularly consuming too much sodium is another major factor. Because blood pressure screening are part of a general physical exam, doctors are able to detect the condition early on. If hypertension is found, a number of medications can help control it. Diuretics, beta-blockers, angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, and calcium channel blockers all work in different ways to relax blood vessels or reduce blood volume.

1. Although the Reverend Stephen Hales (1677-1761) was a botanist who primarily studied plants, he was the first person to effectively measure blood pressure, in 1733.

2. Following a diet that’s rich in vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein and low in saturated fat and sodium can help tame blood pressure. This diet is known as the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stoy Hypertension).

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