Understanding hypertension

Hypertension (high blood pressure) refers to the pressure of the blood in arteries that’s needed to keep blood flowing through the body. High blood pressure develops if the walls of the larger arteries lose their natural elasticity and become rigid, and the smaller blood vessels become narrower.

Nurse and patient

Worldwide, approximately 4 in 10 adults older than 25 years have hypertension. This means that nearly 1 billion people have hypertension. It’s estimated that only 50% of these people are aware of their condition and of these only half take action to control their blood pressure.

In South Africa, 1 in 3 adults have hypertension, and in the Western Cape approximately 1 200 new cases of hypertension are diagnosed monthly.  This makes South Africa one of the countries with the highest rates of hypertension worldwide.

Symptoms of hypertension

Hypertension is known as the silent killer since most people don’t have any symptoms. In some cases hypertension causes symptoms such as:

  • headache,
  • shortness of breath,
  • dizziness, chest pain,
  • palpitations of the heart, and
  • nose bleeds.

Uncontrolled hypertension can lead to

  • a heart attack,
  • stroke,
  • kidney failure, and
  • damage to eyesight.

Checking your blood pressure

The only way to find out what your blood pressure is, is to measure it using acceptable measuring devices, such as:

  • upper-arm or wrist blood pressure monitors that can be bought at local pharmacies,
  • wireless blood pressure monitors,
  • pocket-sized blood pressure monitor that offers connectivity via NFC (near field communication),
  • battery-powered devices that connects via Bluetooth to an app on your smart phone or tablet,
  • public blood pressure machines at certain pharmacies, or

Alternatively, you can have a test done on a regular basis at a health facility in your area.

Healthy choices

What are the harmful effects of high blood pressure?

If left uncontrolled, hypertension can lead to a heart attack, an enlargement of the heart and even heart failure. Blood vessels may develop weak spots due to high pressure, making them more likely to clog and burst. The pressure in the arteries can also cause blood to leak out into the brain. This can cause a stroke.

The Western Cape Government Department of Health (WCDoH) encourages communities to take part in activities that increase fitness and healthy living/eating habits. 

Risk factors for hypertension 

Hypertension is mainly related to environmental and lifestyle factors, including:

  • unhealthy diet,
  • consumption of food containing too much salt and fat,
  • not eating enough fruit and vegetables,
  • physical inactivity and lack of exercise,
  • harmful alcohol use, 
  • smoking and use of other tobacco products, or
  • high levels of stress and poor stress management.

Genetic factors can also play a role in high blood pressure, heart disease, and other related conditions. People with family members diagnosed with high blood pressure are at risk of developing the disease and should therefore be mindful of the risk factors mentioned above, and should go for regular check-ups.


What you can do

Making small changes for big health benefits: Here are some healthy living tips that you can use to improve your health.

  1. Eating a healthy balanced diet
  • Reduce your salt intake to no more than 1 teaspoon (5g) of salt a day.
    • Reduce the salt added to your food during cooking and at the table.
    • Make use of fresh and dried herbs, spices, garlic or lemon juice to add flavour to your food, without adding extra salt or salty seasoning.
    • Foods like packet soups, stock cubes, gravies, cheese, many breakfast cereals, breads, salty snacks, processed meats and fast foods are very high in salt, and should be used sparingly.
  • Enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables, and aim to have at least 5 servings a day.
  • Choose whole grain and high fibre foods.
  • Limit unhealthy saturated and trans fats, found in fatty and processed meats, chicken skin, full-cream dairy products, butter, ghee, cream and hard cheeses, commercially baked goods such as pies, pastries, biscuits and crackers, fast foods and deep-fried potato/slap chips.
  • Eat healthier unsaturated fats such as sunflower /canola /olive oil, soft tub margarines, peanut butter, nuts and seeds, avocado or fish. Try to include fatty fish (sardines, pilchards, salmon, and mackerel) at least twice a week.
  • Eat small, regular meals. 
  1. Doing more physical activity
  • Increasing your level of physical activity doesn’t mean having to join a gym or a sports group!
    • There are lots of physical activities that are free, healthy and could be fun, for example, walking with your family or dog, dancing at home, avoiding lifts and taking the stairs instead, swimming, and gardening. 
  • Checking your own blood pressure
    Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate (for example: fast walking) to vigorous (for example: jogging) activity at least 4-5 days per week. You can accumulate those 30 minutes in bits of 10 minutes throughout the day.
  • Or 150 minutes (20 and 30 minutes) per week in order to reduce your risk of a number of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. 
  • If you'd like to achieve a higher level of fitness, or would like to lose weight, then more physical activity is needed to achieve these goals, aiming for 300 minutes (5 hours) per week.
  1. Avoiding harmful alcohol use, or if you drink alcohol, limit it to no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men.
     
  2. Stopping tobacco use and exposure to tobacco products.
     
  3. Managing stress and striving for a good night’s sleep.
     
  4. Have your blood pressure and glucose levels checked at least once a year, and more often if you have a family history of chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

Treatment of hypertension

If hypertension is detected early it’s possible to minimise the risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke and kidney failure. Individuals who already have hypertension can manage their condition by: 

  • adopting the healthy behaviours listed above,
  • monitoring blood pressure at home if feasible,
  • going for regular check-ups at a health facility, and
  • regularly taking any prescribed medications for lowering blood pressure.

More information on hypertension

The content on this page was last updated on 11 May 2018