Why measure blood pressure?

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Conventional (mechanical) sphygmomanometer wit...

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High blood pressure is a very common condition in modern society. It has been estimated that one in five Americans, around 50 million people, suffer from high blood pressure. In general more men than women have high blood pressure, and the number of sufferers of both genders increases rapidly with age.

In around 5% of cases of high blood pressure is caused by kidney problems, but the causes of the other 95% of cases are unknown. There are a number of factors such as race, age, obesity, stress, smoking and lack of exercise that can contribute to the likelihood of a person developing high blood pressure but usually no one cause is directly responsible.

The majority of people with high blood pressure experience no symptoms, but if left untreated high blood pressure can lead to major health problems. Consequently the monitoring of blood pressure is vitally important in order to detect cases of high blood pressure and treat them early before health problems can develop.

Prolonged high blood pressure damages the lining of artery walls, making them thick and stiff. This condition is known as arteriosclerosis. Cholesterol is more likely to cling to the damaged artery walls, narrowing the arteries and thus preventing the blood from flowing through the body properly.

The heart has to work harder to compensate for the narrowed arteries. Over time this causes the heart to thicken and stretch, eventually failing to function normally, and causing fluids to back up into the lungs.

If the heart cannot work hard enough to compensate for the narrowing of the arteries then less blood can get around the body. Reduced blood flow to the heart can cause chest pain and angina, and eventually the flow may be stopped completely, causing a heart attack.

The function of the kidneys is to filter waste from the blood, but if blood flow to them is reduced then they become less efficient and waste builds up in the blood. Eventually they may fail completely, and dialysis or a kidney transplant will be required.

High blood pressure can also lead to brain damage and impaired vision. If a blood clot occurs in one of the narrowed arteries leading to the brain a thrombotic stroke may occur. Alternatively the weakened blood vessels in the brain may break due to the high pressure leading to hemorrhagic stroke.

A 25-year study of 11,000 individuals has confirmed that young men with high blood pressure are more likely to die from heart disease or other causes than those with normal blood pressure, translating to an estimated shorter life expectancy of two to four years.

The researchers called for increased population-wide prevention of increased blood pressure through healthy lifestyle habits and efforts to detect rising blood pressure in children, teenagers and young adults so that control of blood pressure can be started early.

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