High blood pressure: serious but often preventable

High blood pressure – the focus of World Health Day 2013 – is a serious but often preventable medical condition. Diseases of the circulatory system account for nearly 50% of all deaths in the WHO European Region.

WHO has identified high blood pressure as the world’s most prevalent preventable disease, which can largely be counteracted by relatively simple measures related to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It is a serious medical condition with global implications for health that also apply to the European Region. Known as “the silent killer”, high blood pressure does not cause symptoms in many people, who remain unaware of their condition unless a trained provider performs a diagnostic test. Cardiovascular diseases, to which high blood pressure contributes, cause 42% of all deaths throughout the European Region each year.

Definition of high blood pressure

High blood pressure is diagnosed via simple measurements that which indicate how strongly blood presses against the arterial walls as the heart pumps it around the body. High blood pressure strains the arteries and heart, raising the probability of cardiovascular and kidney diseases. Hypertension is diagnosed if readings on separate occasions consistently show blood pressure to be ≥140/90 mmHg.

Risk factors for high blood pressure

The risk factors include:

  • an unhealthy diet high in saturated fat and salt;
  • overweight and obesity;
  • lack of physical exercise;
  • excessive alcohol consumption;
  • smoking;
  • unmanaged stress;
  • a family history of high blood pressure;
  • being over 65 years of age; and
  • co-morbidities, such as diabetes.

These risk factors are well known (and many are related to lifestyle) and the treatment measures (lifestyle changes and medication, when appropriate) are effective. WHO has therefore labelled high blood pressure as the world’s most prevalent preventable disease, as outlined in the Health 2020 policy: the European policy framework supporting action across government and society for health and well-being.

Addressing high blood pressure throughout life

Health 2020 prioritizes investing in health and well-being through a life-course approach, recognizing that each life stage presents its own attributes and challenges. Similarly, no single model can address high blood pressure, as each age and stage throughout the life-course has its own unique characteristics. Action, however, can start as early as childhood.