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Blood pressure is more than just numbers your doctor writes on a chart.
To explain it, Dr. Shawna Nesbitt, medical director of the Hypertension Clinic at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, talks about plumbing.
Think of blood vessels as pipes in a house, she said. Those pipes feed blood to the whole body. If the pressure in them gets too high, it can damage the pipes or whatever they connect to – such as the heart, brain or kidneys.
"Controlling it doesn't just matter to one of those organs. It matters to all of those organs," said Nesbitt, also a professor of medicine and associate dean of student diversity and inclusion at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
In other words – high blood pressure, or hypertension, is a big deal. Here are five things you might not know about it.
You should start thinking about it before you have it.
Blood pressure tends to increase as people age. But that doesn't mean you can ignore it until it's a problem, said Dr. Raymond Townsend, director of the hypertension program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
It rarely has symptoms. "So unless you check it, you don't know," he said.
It could be wreaking invisible havoc, for example, by aging the circulatory system, Townsend said. "You may be 60 years old, but if you've had untreated high blood pressure for a while, your blood vessels may be 80."
High blood pressure affects 121.5 million U.S. adults, American Heart Association statistics show. It is defined as a systolic pressure (the top number) of 130 or higher or a diastolic pressure (the bottom number) of 80 or higher that stays high over time.
People who are Black; have a family history of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke or kidney disease; and women who had blood pressure issues during pregnancy should pay extra attention, Nesbitt said.
The good news, Townsend said, is if you spot high blood pressure before it does damage, "you're in the primary prevention game. And that's where you want to be.
Because we have great evidence to show that managing your blood pressure will keep your heart, brain and kidneys working a whole lot longer."