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High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke

Samuel Butman, M.D.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death and a major cause of disability worldwide. In the U.S., more than 700,000 people suffer new and recurrent strokes annually. Of those, approximately 158,000 die and others often are left with a variety of disabilities. There are an estimated 5.5 million stroke survivors alive today.

Stroke is cardiovascular disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel to the brain or in the brain is blocked by either a clot or when a blood vessel in the brain actually bursts. When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs, so it starts to die.

Artery-blocking clots cause the most common type of stroke, accounting for 87 percent of all strokes. Ruptured blood vessels within the brain itself cause hemorrhagic strokes. When part of the brain dies from lack of blood flow, the part of the body it controls is affected. Strokes can cause paralysis, affect language and vision, and cause other problems including death.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke. According to recent estimates, nearly one in three U.S. adults have high blood pressure, or hypertension, but because there are no symptoms and no early warning signs, almost one-third do not know they have it. High blood pressure often is called the ‘silent killer’ because many people have high blood pressure for years without knowing it. The only way to tell if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked.

If high blood pressure continues for a long time, the heart and arteries may not work as well as they should and other body organs may be affected. Not only is there increased risk of stroke, but also an increased risk of heart failure, kidney failure and heart attack. When high blood pressure coincides with obesity, smoking, high cholesterol or diabetes, the risk of having a heart attack or stroke increases dramatically.

High blood pressure can occur in children, teens or adults, but it is most common among people over age 35. Those individuals most at risk include African-Americans, the middle-aged, elderly and obese, heavy drinkers and women taking birth control pills. People with diabetes, high cholesterol, gout, or kidney disease also are more likely to have high blood pressure.

Lifestyle changes can help control risk factors for high blood pressure. Lose weight if you are overweight, participate in regular physical activity and avoid excessive alcohol. Smoking is another major risk factor for heart attack and stroke, so stop smoking. Manage your stress, and eat for heart health by enjoying a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole-grain high-fiber products; take the salt shaker off the table. Discuss the use of all supplements, medications and oral contraceptives with your primary care provider because some actually can produce high blood pressure.

Samuel Butman, M.D., is an interventional cardiologist at the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona.