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Why you shouldn’t be afraid of “the silent killer”

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Dr Angie Brown

Medical Director, Irish Heart Foundation and Consultant Cardiologist

We’ve all heard of high blood pressure, but you may not be aware of its nickname – ‘the silent killer’. While it usually has no symptoms, high blood pressure is one of the most significant risk factors for heart disease and stroke.


Two numbers are used to measure the level of your blood pressure. One number records blood pressure when the pressure is at its highest (as the heart muscle squeezes the blood out of your heart) – this is called systolic pressure. The second number records when your heart relaxes and allows the blood to flow back into the heart – this is called diastolic pressure.

High blood pressure means the pressure in your arteries is higher than it should be. This higher pressure puts extra strain on your heart and blood vessels. Over time, this extra strain increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.

The normal level of blood pressure is usually about 120 over 80. If your blood pressure is 140 over 90 or higher (or 140 over 80 if you have diabetes), you should discuss this reading with your doctor.

Over one million people in Ireland have high blood pressure

More than one million people in Ireland currently have high blood pressure. However, almost half of these people aren’t aware of this fact. The number of people in Ireland with high blood pressure is expected to grow, and it has been predicted to reach almost 1.3 million people by 2020.

High blood pressure is more common among older people. In 2010, almost three-quarters of adults aged 65 or older in Ireland had high blood pressure and almost half of adults aged 45-54 had high blood pressure.

What are the causes of high blood pressure?

There are several potential causes of high blood pressure. In some people, an unhealthy lifestyle contributes to it.

As we grow older, our blood pressure increases. Being overweight, drinking too much alcohol, eating too much sodium (found in salt) and not eating enough fresh fruit and vegetables may also lead to an increase in blood pressure. High blood pressure also tends to run in families.

In a very small number of people, there is a specific underlying cause for high blood pressure such as kidney problems, adrenal gland tumours and thyroid problems. Treating these conditions may result in your blood pressure returning to normal.

What can I do about it?

The good news is that it is possible to detect and treat high blood pressure. The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have it measured. Many factors can affect your blood pressure and so one high reading does not necessarily mean you have high blood pressure. This is why it is important to have it checked regularly, particularly if it has been elevated.

If you have been prescribed blood pressure tablets, it is important you take them regularly and your blood pressure is rechecked to make sure your blood pressure is being managed.

If you are 30 or older, it is best to have your blood pressure checked every year. You can get your blood pressure checked by your GP, in some pharmacies or in the Irish Heart Foundation’s mobile health unit.

Eight simple ways to manage your blood pressure

  1. Know your blood pressure
  2. Aim for a healthy weight
  3. Eat less salt and processed food and eat more fruit and vegetables
  4. Drink less alcohol
  5. Be more active
  6. Don’t smoke
  7. Manage your cholesterol
  8. If you have been prescribed tablets for high blood pressure, take them.
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