Hypertension: the silent killer

17 May is World Hypertension Day. The impact of high blood pressure is particularly devastating because many remain unaware that they are suffering from it. This hidden epidemic result in a frightening nine million deaths around the world every year and with 6.3 million people living with high blood pressure, South Africa has one of the highest rates of hypertension worldwide.

Statistics show that about 130 heart attacks and 240 strokes occur daily in South Africa. This means that 10 people will suffer a stroke and five people will have a heart attack every hour. If you don’t know if you are hypertensive, you could be living with a ticking time bomb.

What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is a measurement of the force against the walls of your arteries as your heart the heart contracts and relaxes. It is needed to keep the blood flowing through the blood vessels around the body.

However, high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is when the blood vessels have persistently raised pressure. This develops if the walls of the arteries lose their natural elasticity and become hard. It can cause the heart to have to work harder to pump the blood around the body, making the heart weaker.

You can have high blood pressure (hypertension) for years without any symptoms.
High blood pressure generally develops over many years, and even without symptoms, damage to blood vessels and your heart continues. Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk of serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke amongst other diseases. If left uncontrolled, high blood pressure can also cause blindness, kidney disease and heart failure, and the risk increases in the presence of other risk factors such as diabetes.

What can you do?

Fortunately, high blood pressure can be easily detected. And once you know you have high blood pressure, you can work with your doctor to control it. The first step is to know what your blood pressure is – you can find this out at your doctor, local hospital or clinic.

If you do discover that you are hypertensive, you can be reassured that the condition is treatable. Controlling high blood pressure, together with other risk factors, is the main way that you can prevent stroke and heart diseases. It is however very important that elevated blood pressure is detected early.

When your doctor tells you your blood pressure reading, it is expressed as one figure "over" another, for example, 120/80. This is considered a "normal" blood pressure reading in a healthy adult. The top or larger number measures the pressure generated when the heart contracts (pumps). The bottom, smaller number reflects the pressure in the arteries while the heart relaxes between heartbeats.

This chart shows you how to interpret your blood pressure reading:


A single high reading does not necessarily mean that you have high blood pressure, but high blood pressure is diagnosed if someone has a BP of 140/90 or above, measured on several occasions.

Healthy lifestyle changes are critical to preventing and treating high blood pressure. For many people, it can be controlled with lifestyle changes alone, and, in some cases, medication. Lifestyle changes are recommended for all patients with hypertension, regardless of drug therapy as it may reduce, or even abolish, the need for antihypertensive drugs.

According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, you can minimise your risk of developing high blood pressure by making the following lifestyle changes:

  • Following a healthy diet can go a long way to help you control your blood pressure
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet, with small, regular meals
  • Try to reduce your salt intake by: reducing the salt added to your food during cooking and at the table, and limiting the use of high salt foods, such as salty snacks, processed meats, take-aways and convenience meals, stocks, soup powders and gravies
  • Enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables, and aim to have at least 5 servings a day
  • Choose whole grain and high fibre foods
  • Try to include fatty fish (sardines, pilchards, salmon, mackerel) at least twice a week
  • Limit red or fatty meat, fried foods and high fat snack foods, and including more ‘good’ fats (vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocado in your diet
  • If you drink alcohol, we recommend that you limit it to no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men

SA Heart and Stroke Foundation


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