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Do you have high blood pressure? And before you automatically answer ‘no’, are you sure?

More than a quarter of adults in the UK have high blood pressure (hypertension), but many won’t even realise it. The condition rarely has noticeable symptoms, but if left untreated it significantly increases your risk of other serious health problems, including heart attacks and strokes.

Some of those most at risk from high blood pressure are people who appear in good health and rarely visit the doctor or have a regular medical which detect the condition. The only way to find out if your blood pressure is high is to get it checked – something you can easily do at your GP surgery, at many local pharmacies, or at home using an inexpensive and easy-to-use blood pressure monitor.

Because high blood pressure is so widespread and potentially life-threatening, Public Health England has joined forces with a range of partners to devise an action plan to tackle it. Preventing high blood pressure, detecting it sooner and managing it better will not only improve people’s lives, but ease pressure on the NHS by reducing the number of serious health crises caused by it.

As well as increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes, high blood pressure can also damage the kidneys, brain and other organs and increase your risk of developing a number of serious long-term health conditions.

So what is blood pressure? Put simply, it is a measure of the force that your heart uses to pump blood around your body. A blood pressure check will give you two readings, known as ‘systolic pressure’ and ‘diastolic pressure’. Systolic is the pressure when your heart pumps blood out, while diastolic is the pressure when your heart is at rest, between beats. So, for example, if someone checks your blood pressure and says it is “112 over 73”, that means your systolic reading (always the higher number) is 112 and your diastolic reading is 73. It would be written as 112/73.

If you got those figures it would be good news, as ideal blood pressure is considered to be anywhere between 90/60 and 120/80. High blood pressure (hypertension) is considered to be 140/90 or higher, while the less common low blood pressure (hypotension) is considered as 90/60 or lower.

Your blood pressure numbers can vary due to age, underlying medical conditions or outside influences such as stress, but it is important to keep a regular check on them. One way is to buy a simple-to-use home blood pressure monitor, widely available from around £20, to keep a regular check on your blood pressure and that of other family members.

If you check your own blood pressure at home and are concerned at the results you should consult your GP, especially if your numbers are high. If your GP confirms that you have high blood pressure, he or she will first want to find out if it is a symptom of another medical issue. However, it is often a condition in itself, not linked to anything else and known as “essential hypertension”.

Various types of medication are used to treat high blood pressure, but your doctor might also suggest lifestyle changes which could lower your blood pressure naturally and leave you needing little or no medication. A healthy low-fat diet with lots of fibre and a reduced salt intake can significantly lower blood pressure. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight will help.

Regular exercise can reduce your blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition. If you smoke, you should stop. Although smoking doesn’t directly cause high blood pressure, it puts you at much higher risk of a heart attack or stroke, so that danger is doubled if you also have high blood pressure.

Cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, avoiding stress and getting a good night’s sleep will also all help to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level. Of course, making these lifestyle changes can be easier said than done, but your GP should be able to direct you to support and resources which will help you achieve them.

The crucial thing is not to ignore blood pressure. Low blood pressure, although generally less dangerous, can also cause problems by making you feel light-headed or even suffer a ‘blackout’, especially if you get up quickly from a period of inactivity.

If you haven’t had your blood pressure checked for a while, now’s the time to put that right. Investing in a home monitor will mean you can keep a regular (ideally weekly) check on your figures, just like using the bathroom scales to keep track of your weight.  For more NHS information about high blood pressure, click here.

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