The dangerous connection between high blood pressure and stroke
If you could cut your risk of having any medical problem in half, you’d do it, right? Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that high blood pressure causes nearly half of all strokes. Taking simple steps to lower your blood pressure is the first and most important step toward reducing your risk of stroke.
High blood pressure is also known as hypertension. When your blood pressure is too high, it can damage arteries and the blood vessels by pushing too hard from inside the arteries. It’s similar to a bike or car tire that’s been pumped up with too much air – that pressure makes the tire rubber weak and thin. The same thing happens to your arteries when you have high blood pressure. Subjecting blood vessels within the arteries to constant pounding and pressure eventually takes its toll.
High blood pressure can damage arteries anywhere in the body, but weakened arteries in the brain greatly increase your chance of having a stroke.
Experts agree that 80% of strokes can be prevented. Since high blood pressure plays a part in more than half of all strokes, one of the best ways to protect yourself is to get your blood pressure numbers into a healthy range.
What is a healthy blood pressure?
Your blood pressure is represented by 2 numbers – your systolic and diastolic pressures. Those numbers go up and down throughout the day depending on your activity and stress levels, and both numbers are equally important. The first number (systolic) measures pressure while the heart is pumping blood; the second number (diastolic) measures pressure when the heart is resting, between beats.
120/80 or lower is considered a healthy blood pressure. When you have your blood pressure checked, if either number is higher than 120 or 80, your heart is working harder than it should.
What is a stroke?
An ischemic stroke is an interruption in the blood supply to the brain. Without that oxygenated blood, brain cells start dying within minutes. Depending on which part of the brain is impacted, a stroke can impact your ability to speak, see, think and remember. Severe strokes may cause partial or full paralysis, or even death.
In almost 9 out of 10 stroke cases, the interruption is caused by a blockage, often a blood clot, in the arteries that bring blood to the brain. A stroke with this kind of blockage is called an “ischemic” stroke.
High blood pressure can sometimes lead to a hemorrhagic stroke. This is less common, but is very serious. In this type of stroke, weakened blood vessels burst open, leaking blood into the brain or the area surrounding the brain.
High blood pressure may also cause the body to form clots that break free and lead to “mini strokes” – more formally known as transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs. Rather than staying put and restricting blood flow indefinitely, the clot breaks free or dissolves, allowing blood to flow normally again. TIAs are an important warning sign about the possibility of a full-blown stroke in the future.
How to control high blood pressure
If you get your blood pressure under control, you can cut your chance of having a stroke by almost half. Making healthy lifestyle choices is the place to start. Here are some recommendations from the American Heart Association:
- Eat less salt and saturated fat, and avoid artificial trans fats (found in processed food).
- Eat more fiber, fruits, and leafy green vegetables.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Stop smoking. Now.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
- Get regular exercise. 30 minutes of aerobic activity, such as brisk walks, 5 times a week is ideal.
- Stress less. Studies show constant stress makes you more likely to have a stroke or a TIA.
- Ask your doctor about blood pressure medications that may help.
Medications for high blood pressure
Talk to your doctor about whether medication would help you manage your blood pressure. The American Heart Association sums up all of the different families of blood pressure medications in this list:
- ACE inhibitors
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers
- Calcium channel blockers
- Alpha blockers
- Alpha-2 Receptor Agonists
- Combined alpha and beta-blockers
- Central agonists
- Peripheral adrenergic inhibitors
Each does something different to help manage blood pressure. Your doctor will recommend the right medication for you.
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