Someone’s blood pressure can be very high, and they might never know it. That’s because even the initial symptoms of chronic hypertension—headaches, nosebleeds, and dizzy spells—rarely appear until a lot of damage has been done, if at all. Often, the first indicator of elevated blood pressure is a sign of the coronary and other health problems that it leads to, such as heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure, or diabetes or precursors to diabetes.
High blood pressure tends to develop gradually and silently over the course of decades, but doctors aren’t clear as to why. Risk factors include being middle-aged or older, being African-American, smoking, stress, a diet too low in potassium or vitamin D, and a sedentary lifestyle. People are also at articular risk for chronic hypertension if the have a family history of the condition, pointing to a genetic link. A number of genes have been identified as having some influence in cases of hereditary high blood pressure, including 11 in a study published last week.
"Discovering these new genetic variants provides vital insight into how the body regulates blood pressure," said Patricia Munroe, a researcher, in a statement. "With further research, we are hopeful it could lead to the development of new treatments for treating blood pressure and heart disease—a leading cause of death worldwide."
Someone with a genetic predisposition to high blood pressure isn’t doomed. There are risk factors a person can do directly. High blood pressure prevention means maintaining a healthy body weight, keeping up on regular physical activity such as brisk walking, being judicious abut drinking, and eating a diet low in salt but with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Trading a high-stress lifestyle for a calmer one may not always be possible or practical, but there are things, such as mindfulness meditation, that can reduce stress enough to lower hypertension risk.
Stress can also have an indirect effect, leading people who have been prescribed blood pressure medications to briefly, but dangerously, forgo them. Medications for high blood pressure include beta blockers and other drugs that relax the blood vessels, allowing the heart to work normally.