What Causes High Blood Pressure and How Can You Prevent It?

Keeping blood pressure numbers at a healthy level means learning what causes high blood pressure, who it affects most and how to prevent it in your life.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects nearly half of American adults, yet only 1 in 4 have it under control. By learning what causes high blood pressure and how to treat it, you can keep your heart and other organs healthy and live a healthier life.

What Causes High Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure occurs when the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels is consistently elevated. It’s often referred to as “The Silent Killer” because there are usually no symptoms until serious organ damage leads to other complications. Despite many decades of research, doctors still struggle to pinpoint exactly what causes it. However, genetic factors, family history, age, race, poor diet, lack of exercise and obesity all play a significant role in determining your blood pressure levels.

Who Is Most Susceptible To High Blood Pressure?

Nine in 10 people experience high blood pressure at least once in their lifetime, but certain groups are more likely to get it. If you fall under any of these categories, be sure you’re monitoring your blood pressure more closely.

  • Black people have a higher risk and an earlier onset than White, Hispanic, Asian and Native people.
  • High blood pressure is genetic. If your parents, siblings or other family members have the condition, you are more likely to get it, as well.
  • Pregnant women are more susceptible to high blood pressure complications, which can adversely affect both the baby and mother.
  • Approximately 78% of hypertension cases in men and 65% in women are attributed to obesity.
  • Additionally, those over 35, smokers, heavy drinkers, inactive people and women who take birth control pills are at a higher risk of contracting high blood pressure.

The Risks of Untreated High Blood Pressure

Arteries and veins act as the plumbing system of our bodies. If you put them under too much stress by turning up the pressure, your arteries will become brittle, form blockages and may eventually burst. Untreated high blood pressure can have disastrous effects on your organs and lead to heart attacks, strokes, chronic kidney disease, peripheral vascular disease and sexual dysfunction. Blurred vision, chest pain, confusion, seizures, severe headaches and fluid in the lungs are all emergency symptoms of high blood pressure that require immediate treatment.

What Are Ideal Blood Pressure Numbers?

Blood pressure is measured two ways, by systolic and diastolic. Systolic blood pressure measures the pressure in our arteries as our heart contracts and pushes blood to the rest of the body. Diastolic blood pressure measures the force of blood against your artery walls as your heart relaxes and refills with blood.

A typical blood pressure reading lists the systolic above the diastolic reading, for example 120/80 For your systolic blood pressure range, you should aim for 120 or lower.
Your diastolic blood pressure range should remain below 80. Your ideal blood pressure may change based on several factors, but how high is too high?

As of 2017, Stage 1 Hypertension is defined by blood pressure numbers higher than 130 over 89.
Systolic blood pressure levels over 160 are concerning, especially if you have any of the emergency symptoms listed above.

How To Treat High Blood Pressure

Although we don’t have control over certain factors, like our age, family history and genetic predisposition, you can still make preventative measures and lifestyle adjustments to maintain healthy blood pressure levels.

Test Your Blood Pressure Yourself

You don’t need to see a doctor to screen your blood pressure. Simply visit a standalone machine at your local pharmacy or purchase an at-home test kit. If you do buy an at-home test kit, keep in mind that tests that wrap around the arm are usually more accurate than those that wrap around the wrist. Since hypertension is a silent killer, it’s smart to keep track of your numbers and proactively treat high blood pressure before it becomes more serious.

Maintain a Low-Sodium Diet

Your diet — and especially your salt intake — can cause your blood pressure to rise over time. Sodium can hide in many of your favorite foods, like deli meat, pizza, soup, pre-packaged seasonings and processed snacks. Check nutrition labels for sodium, skip the table salt and strive to eat less than the recommended 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fresh meats, eggs and low-fat dairy products are healthy components of a low-sodium diet.

Get Plenty of Exercise

Obesity is a major contributor to hypertension, and diet alone may not be enough to maintain healthy blood pressure numbers. Regular exercise is key in keeping a healthy weight. Experts recommend getting 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. This may sound overwhelming, but it averages out to less than a half-hour per day. Go on a walk, work in the garden, dance in your room, swim laps in the pool or find any other activity you enjoy that will get your heart pumping.

Control Other Lifestyle Factors

Habits like smoking and drinking alcohol have been proven to lead to hypertension, so reduce your alcohol intake and quit cigarettes or vaping. Stress and anger can play a large role in elevating your blood pressure levels, as well. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, setting aside plenty of time for relaxation and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Take Medications

In addition to making lifestyle changes, many people also benefit from medications. Everyone reacts to hypertension medicine differently. Your doctor will consider all your risk factors before prescribing the medication they believe will benefit you the most. Since there are several classes of hypertension drugs, finding the right medication may require trial and error. You may experience some side effects until you find the right fit.

Talk To Your Doctor

It’s important to talk openly with your physicians about your blood pressure levels.
Here are some questions you should be asking at every checkup:

  1. Do I have high blood pressure?
  2. If I do, where do I fall in terms of severity? Are my numbers concerning or just slightly elevated?
  3. Can I lower these numbers through lifestyle changes, or will I need medication?
  4. If I do need medication, which type is best for me and which side effects can I anticipate?
  5. What is my risk for contracting cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions?

If your blood pressure numbers are on target, keep up the good work! If not, feel confident knowing that there are many steps you can take to keep your levels under control and live a long, healthy life.

To learn more about what causes high blood pressure and how to treat high blood pressure, call 1 (833) VLLYWSE or visit valleywisehealth.org.


  1. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2018/05/01/more-than-100-million-americans-have-high-blood-pressure-aha says#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20Americans%20at,adults%20in%20the%20United%20States.
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/risk_factors.htm#:~:text=Age.,blood%20pressure%20during%20their%20lifetime.
  3. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Obesity-and-Blood-Pressure.aspx#:~:text=Obesity%20is%20a%20major%20cause,be%20directly%20attributed%20to%20obesity
  4. https://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/guide/hypertensive-crisis
  5. https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet#:~:text=However%2C%20most%20Americans%20eat%20too,about%201%20teaspoon%20of%20salt!
  6. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults
  7. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/types-of-blood-pressure-medications

About the Author

Beeletsega Yeneneh, MD, MS, FACC - Cardiology

Beeletsega T. Yeneneh, MD, MS, FACC is a cardiologist with District Medical Group working at Valleywise Health and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Creighton University School of Medicine in Phoenix. He received his specialty training in General Cardiovascular Medicine and then Advanced Echocardiography Imaging at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. He is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in both Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases. He is also board certified in Echocardiography and Nuclear Cardiology. He is passionate about caring for his patients, teaching medical students, residents and fellows as well as mentoring in their clinical research projects.

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