Over time, the effects of high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) can include a heart attack, kidney failure, and congestive heart failure (CHF). The body structures most vulnerable to high blood pressure include blood vessels, heart, brain, and kidneys. Fortunately, making certain lifestyle changes can help reduce the impact on these vital organs.
High blood pressure is often referred to as “the silent killer.” Most people with high blood pressure don’t have any symptoms, since the effects are occurring inside the body. The body structures that chronic high blood pressure affects most include:
- Blood vessels
Because of the effects on these organs, a person who has had high blood pressure for a long time (known as chronic hypertension) can have:
- A heart attack
- Kidney failure
- Chronic heart failure (CHF)
- Eye damage with loss of vision
- Peripheral arterial disease, including bulges or ballooning of the aorta (called aneurysms)
- A stroke or “mini stroke” – also known as a “TIA” (transient ischemic attack).
High Blood Pressure’s Effects on Blood Vessels
The small blood vessels in the organs are commonly affected by high blood pressure over time. High blood pressure causes blood vessels to become scarred, hardened, and less elastic — which means they are more likely to get blocked or rupture. This may happen naturally as you get older (whether or not your blood pressure is too high), but high blood pressure can speed up this process. Another one of high blood pressure’s effects on your blood vessels is that it may play a role in the development of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the process of the artery walls becoming thicker (also known as narrowing or “hardening”) due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol. High blood pressure adds strain to the blood vessel walls, putting them at higher risk for developing atherosclerosis than they would be otherwise.
Effects on the Heart
If the inside of your blood vessels get smaller and harder – and the pressure inside them increases – your heart has to pump harder to get blood through them. Your heart is a muscle, and just like other muscles, working this hard makes your heart get bigger.
This is not a good thing for the heart. The heart can become stretched and then weakened. The heart can no longer squeeze all the blood out of its chambers and the person has what’s known as congestive heart failure. This is a serious condition. Fluid backs up into the lungs and chest cavity – leading to shortness of breath.
Effects on the Brain
Blood vessels in the brain can rupture or get blocked, just like blood vessels elsewhere in the body. The difference is that if a blood vessel ruptures in the brain, the bleeding can cause serious problems, or even death. This bleeding is called a hemorrhagic stroke. If a blood vessel in the brain gets blocked by narrowing, the brain tissues will be deprived of the nutrients and oxygen they usually get from the blood; this can cause significant damage and is known as an ischemic stroke. Another effect of high blood pressure is a transient ischemic attack (TIA). It is often labeled “mini-stroke,” though it should be more accurately dubbed “warning stroke,” a warning you should take very seriously. TIA is caused by a clot; the only difference between a stroke and TIA is that with TIA the blockage is transient (temporary). TIA symptoms occur rapidly and last a relatively short time. Most TIAs last less than five minutes; the average is about a minute. Unlike a stroke, when a TIA is over, there’s no permanent injury to the brain. High blood pressure is a major cause of both strokes and bleeding in the brain. It can also affect normal brain function as a person ages.
Effects on the Kidneys
The kidneys are also easily damaged, if the arteries that supply blood to the kidneys are damaged, the kidneys’ tissues will not get the blood they need and the kidneys themselves can gradually lose their ability to function.
Effects on the Eyes
High blood pressure can also cause changes in the retinas of your eyes. The retina is where the eye receives visual images. High blood pressure causes the blood vessels in the eyes to get narrow, rupture and bleed
These effects result in impaired vision and may lead to blindness.
Effects of High Blood Pressure: Summary
As you can see, blood vessels, the heart, brain, kidneys, and eyes are the structures in your body most affected by high blood pressure. That’s why a person who has had high blood pressure for many years is at a serious risk for heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure, even if he or she hasn’t had any symptoms along the way. In fact, when compared to people without high blood pressure, people with untreated high blood pressure are:
- Three times more likely to have heart disease
- Six times more likely to develop chronic heart failure
- Seven times more likely to have a stroke.
Fortunately, blood pressure can be controlled, have your blood pressure checked and see your health care provider if there is a problem.
D Burgan, RN BScN