Silent Killer

According to the Bible, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”(Matthew 6:21). Indeed, the role of the heart in the body is as valuable as a treasure. As one important muscle in our body, it has a very vital function in our human body. This muscle pumps blood in our body, so that blood could distribute oxygen to other parts of our body. Oxygen is needed in order for our organs to function properly. However, when the blood pressing on the inside of our arteries (blood vessels) is higher than normal, a person will have high blood pressure. In this case, high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, may damage our arteries. This will make a person more likely to have a stroke, heart attack, kidney problems, or heart disease. High blood pressure can cause serious health problems even if you do not feel sick. This is why hypertension is often called “the silent killer” because you may not have symptoms.

To know the physiological origins of high blood pressure, we should discuss the normal functions of the heart first. Normally, the pumping of the heart creates a rhythmic pulsing of blood along and against the walls of the blood vessels, which are flexible enough to dilate or contract and thus keep the pressure constant. Most physicians consider the blood pressure of a healthy adult to be  near 120/80—i.e., equivalent to the pressure exerted by a column of mercury 120 mm high during contraction of the heart (systole) and 80 mm high during relaxation (diastole). However, for a variety of reasons, the blood vessels could lose their flexibility, or the muscles surrounding them may force them to contract. As a result, the heart must pump more forcefully to move the same amount of blood through the narrowed vessels into the capillaries, thereby increasing the blood pressure. Over time, this higher pressure, or hypertension, can damage the arterioles (the small terminal twigs of an artery that end in capillaries) in such organs as the liver, kidney, or brain and can also weaken the overworked heart. The increased risk of death from congestive heart failure, kidney failure, or stroke is the chief danger of hypertension (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2006).

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High blood pressure occurs when the systolic number is higher than 140 or when the diastolic number is higher than 90. Only one of these numbers needs to be high to have high blood pressure. For example: 118/98, the systolic number (118) is normal, but the diastolic number (98) is high. For the blood pressure of 180/70, the systolic number (180) is high, but the diastolic number (70) is not. A good systolic number is less than 120. For some people, a number between 90 and 100 is normal. A good diastolic number is usually lower than 80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). There are three types of high blood pressure:

1.) Prehypertension – A blood pressure that is very close to the numbers for hypertension is called prehypertension. A systolic pressure between 120 and 139 or a diastolic pressure between 80 and 89 is considered prehypertensive. Having prehypertension makes a person more likely to develop an even higher blood pressure in the future. If one is prehypertensive, the doctor may suggest lifestyle changes. If one has kidney disease or diabetes, the person may need medicine to treat  prehypertension.

2.) Primary hypertension: Also known as essential or idiopathic hypertension. This is the most common type of hypertension and occurs in about 90% of people. The cause of primary hypertension is not known.

3.) Secondary hypertension: Is usually caused by a medical condition or a medicine. Some examples include: Kidney disease, Sleep apnea (when breathing stops for short periods during sleep), and Stress (AltCareDex Medicine Modality, August 2006).

With all these information about hypertension, we realize that the function of the heart is more than a remarkable pump affects our entire body. If the flow of blood to or through the heart or to the rest of the body is reduced, or if a disturbance occurs in the small bundle of highly specialized cells in the heart that generate electrical impulses to control heartbeats, the result may at first be too subtle to notice. However, without diagnosis and treatment, these changes could develop into a life-threatening problem.

To top it all, hypertension could lead a person to have a heart attack. What happens in a heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), is that the blood supply to the heart muscle, or myocardium, is severely reduced or stopped, as when a blood clot becomes lodged in a coronary artery. Deprived of its blood supply, the area of heart muscle served by the blocked artery weakens and dies. The affected area is called an infarct, hence the term “myocardial infarction.” A heart attack is also called coronary thrombosis (referring to a clot) or coronary occlusion, meaning an obstruction. A heart attack can also be the result of an unexplained temporary spasm of a coronary artery (Physicians’ Desk Reference, 23 June 2003).

This brings us to what are the main causes of heart disease – the risk factors are often related to lifestyle—smoking, physical inactivity, a high-fat diet, raised blood pressure—account for at least three in every four new cases of cardiovascular disease (Edwards, 2001). With the threats of heart disease, the best way to protect your heart is by making positive changes in your lifestyle, such as not smoking, exercising, controlling your weight, and limiting fat in your diet (Lenfant, 23 August 2000). Risk factors may be controllable or uncontrollable:

1.)    Genetics – African Americans are at higher risk for high blood pressure than are whites and if you have people with high blood pressure in your family, your risk of developing it is higher. But the high blood pressure that plagues African Americans is no longer thought to be only the product of genetics. Lifestyle differences, environment and poorer access to quality health care are also factors.

2.)    Aging  – Our risk for high blood pressure tends to rise as we age. It generally begins in people between the ages of 35 and 50, and occurs in over 50 percent of people over the age of 65.

3.)    Weight – Carrying too much weight around is not only physically and emotionally difficult–it can be life threatening. Being overweight is a major risk factor in developing high blood pressure.

4.)    Smoking – A significant rise in blood pressure goes with the smoking of each cigarette.

5.)    Inactive lifestyle – Not participating in any form of regular exercise can increase your risk for high blood pressure.

6.)    Nutrition – A diet high in fat increases your risk for high blood pressure.

7.)    Salt – Eating salt drives up blood pressure, and African Americans tend to be more sensitive to sodium than whites.

8.)    Stress – Emotional stress, including the stress brought on by acts of racial prejudice, encourages high blood pressure.

9.)    Alcohol – Excessive alcohol intake is an important risk factor for high blood pressure (Black Enterprise, May 2001).

As we now know how important the heart is to our body, we should take steps in taking care of it by improving our lifestyles and prevent the risk factors associated with high blood pressure. As it is a muscle, we need to keep our hearts healthy by having a regular exercise and proper diets. We should not wear our hearts under our sleeves and we should start lifestyle changes in fighting heart disease. Prevention is always a better alternative than any drugs or surgical procedures known to man.