It’s often called “the silent killer.” That’s because hypertension, which impacts nearly one in three American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), often has no noticeable symptoms. In nearly half of all cases, people don’t even know they have hypertension until their heart and arteries have already suffered damage.

In Alabama, it’s time to talk about “the silent killer.” The state ranks third in the U.S. when it comes to hypertension rates, and it affects more than 40 percent of the people who live in the Heart of Dixie. It’s a serious public health issue, and it’s one that people need to ask their doctor about. If you haven’t talked to your physician about hypertension, make an appointment for a check-up today.  

Here’s what you should know about hypertension.

What is hypertension?

Hypertension is another name for high blood pressure. That’s the term describing the force of blood pushing against your blood vessels as it flows through your body. Normal blood pressure is below 120 systolic (the pressure when the heart beats) over 80 diastolic (the pressure when the heart rests); elevated blood pressure is 120 to 129 systolic over less than 80 diastolic; high blood pressure is 130 over 80 or higher. When blood pressure reaches higher than 180 over 120, it’s considered a hypertension crisis, and it demands medical help right away.

Though blood pressure is something that often changes throughout the day, it can be dangerous if it remains elevated. Over time, it and can lead to heart damage, stroke and a number of other negative health effects.

How do I know if I have high blood pressure?

Maybe you associate high blood pressure with an image of a person who’s sweaty, red-faced, sleepless and stressed — but that’s a myth. The challenge with high blood pressure is that there often aren’t any signs or symptoms. Occasionally, high blood pressure can cause nausea, and, in a hypertensive crisis, a person may get a headache and/or nosebleed. But most often, hypertension is indeed silent. That’s why it’s important to have a healthcare professional check your blood pressure regularly: It’s the only reliable way to know if you have hypertension.

What causes hypertension?

There are a few risk factors for high blood pressure. Some you can control, while others you can’t. Lifestyle risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • An unhealthy, high-sodium and low-potassium diet
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Consuming more than one drink (for women) or two drinks (for men) a day
  • Stress

Risk factors you can’t control include:

  • A family history of high blood pressure
  • Older age
  • Race (high blood pressure is more common among African-Americans)
  • Other chronic conditions, including sleep apnea, diabetes and kidney disease

What can high blood pressure lead to?

High blood pressure can be sneaky. It can damage your body for years, and you might not be aware it. According to the Mayo Clinic, nearly half of people with untreated high blood pressure die from heart disease, and one-third die from stroke. That’s because high blood pressure can damage the walls of your arteries, causing them to harden and thicken. It can also lead to the weakening of arteries, causing them to enlarge or balloon. That’s known as an aneurysm. If an aneurysm ruptures, it can cause serious harm and even death.

In addition to potentially damaging the heart and brain, high blood pressure can also lead to vision damage, kidney damage and sexual dysfunction. Because high blood pressure causes your circulatory system to work extra hard, it heightens your risk for a number of diseases that could threaten or drastically change your life.

What can I do if I have high blood pressure?

Talk to your doctor. He or she can take a blood pressure reading by putting a pressure cuff on your arm. If your blood pressure is high, your doctor may wish to take several readings. He or she may prescribe you a blood pressure medication, which is known as an antihypertensive. During your appointment, ask your doctor if there are lifestyle changes you can make to address your hypertension. There are a number of things you can do that may help lower blood pressure, including:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly. Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (or a combination of the two) every week.
  • Eating a healthy diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains
  • Consuming more potassium-rich foods. Foods such as avocados, fat-free yogurt, spinach, tuna, tomatoes and oranges help lower the impact of sodium on your body.
  • Trying to eat less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day
  • Managing stress
  • Limiting your drinking to one (for women) or two (for men) alcoholic beverages per day

What can I do to prevent hypertension?

In addition to the healthy lifestyle advice listed above, it’s important to know your numbers. Those include blood sugar, blood cholesterol, blood pressure and body weight. With regular visits to your doctor for your annual wellness exam, you’ll be able to keep watch over those measurements together. If anything changes, you may be able to catch high blood pressure — and address it — sooner than later.