High blood pressure dangers: Hypertension's effects on your body

High blood pressure is a risk factor for more than heart disease. Discover what complications high blood pressure can cause.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

High blood pressure (hypertension) can quietly damage your body for years before symptoms develop. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to disability, a poor quality of life, or even a fatal heart attack or stroke.

Treatment and lifestyle changes can help control your high blood pressure to reduce your risk of life-threatening complications.

Here's a look at the complications uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause.

Damage to your arteries

Healthy arteries are flexible, strong and elastic. Their inner lining is smooth so that blood flows freely, supplying vital organs and tissues with nutrients and oxygen.

Hypertension gradually increases the pressure of blood flowing through your arteries. As a result, you might have:

  • Damaged and narrowed arteries. High blood pressure can damage the cells of your arteries' inner lining. When fats from your diet enter your bloodstream, they can collect in the damaged arteries. Eventually, your artery walls become less elastic, limiting blood flow throughout your body.
  • Aneurysm. Over time, the constant pressure of blood moving through a weakened artery can cause a section of its wall to enlarge and form a bulge (aneurysm). An aneurysm can potentially rupture and cause life-threatening internal bleeding. Aneurysms can form in any artery, but they're most common in your body's largest artery (aorta).

Damage to your heart

High blood pressure can cause many problems for your heart, including:

  • Coronary artery disease. Arteries narrowed and damaged by high blood pressure have trouble supplying blood to your heart. When blood can't flow freely to your heart, you can have chest pain (angina), irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias) or a heart attack.
  • Enlarged left heart. High blood pressure forces your heart to work harder to pump blood to the rest of your body. This causes part of your heart (left ventricle) to thicken. A thickened left ventricle increases your risk of heart attack, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.
  • Heart failure. Over time, the strain on your heart caused by high blood pressure can cause the heart muscle to weaken and work less efficiently. Eventually, your overwhelmed heart begins to fail. Damage from heart attacks adds to this problem.

Damage to your brain

Your brain depends on a nourishing blood supply to work properly. But high blood pressure can cause several problems, including:

  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA). Sometimes called a ministroke, a TIA is a brief, temporary disruption of blood supply to your brain. Hardened arteries or blood clots caused by high blood pressure can cause TIA. TIA is often a warning that you're at risk of a full-blown stroke.
  • Stroke. A stroke occurs when part of your brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients, causing brain cells to die. Blood vessels damaged by high blood pressure can narrow, rupture or leak. High blood pressure can also cause blood clots to form in the arteries leading to your brain, blocking blood flow and potentially causing a stroke.
  • Dementia. Narrowed or blocked arteries can limit blood flow to the brain, leading to a certain type of dementia (vascular dementia). A stroke that interrupts blood flow to the brain can also cause vascular dementia.
  • Mild cognitive impairment. This condition is a transition stage between the changes in understanding and memory that generally come with aging and the more-serious problems caused by dementia. Studies suggest that high blood pressure can lead to mild cognitive impairment.

Damage to your kidneys

Kidneys filter excess fluid and waste from your blood — a process that requires healthy blood vessels. High blood pressure can damage the blood vessels in and leading to your kidneys. Having diabetes in addition to high blood pressure can worsen the damage.

Kidney problems caused by high blood pressure include:

  • Kidney scarring (glomerulosclerosis). This type of kidney damage occurs when tiny blood vessels within the kidney become scarred and unable to effectively filter fluid and waste from your blood. Glomerulosclerosis can lead to kidney failure.
  • Kidney failure. High blood pressure is one of the most common causes of kidney failure. Damaged blood vessels prevent kidneys from effectively filtering waste from your blood, allowing dangerous levels of fluid and waste to accumulate. You might ultimately require dialysis or kidney transplantation.

Damage to your eyes

High blood pressure can damage the tiny, delicate blood vessels that supply blood to your eyes, causing:

  • Damage to your retina (retinopathy). Damage to the light-sensitive tissue at the back of your eye (retina) can lead to bleeding in the eye, blurred vision and complete loss of vision. You're at an even greater risk if you have diabetes in addition to high blood pressure.
  • Fluid buildup under the retina (choroidopathy). Choroidopathy can result in distorted vision or sometimes scarring that impairs vision.
  • Nerve damage (optic neuropathy). Blocked blood flow can damage the optic nerve, leading to bleeding within your eye or vision loss.

Sexual dysfunction

The inability to have and maintain an erection (erectile dysfunction) becomes increasingly common in men as they reach age 50. But men with high blood pressure are even more likely to experience erectile dysfunction. That's because limited blood flow caused by high blood pressure can block blood from flowing to your penis.

Women can also experience sexual dysfunction as a result of high blood pressure. Reduced blood flow to the vagina can lead to a decrease in sexual desire or arousal, vaginal dryness, or difficulty achieving orgasm.

High blood pressure emergencies

High blood pressure is usually a chronic condition that gradually causes damage over the years. But sometimes blood pressure rises so quickly and severely that it becomes a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment, often with hospitalization.

In these situations, high blood pressure can cause:

  • Memory loss, personality changes, trouble concentrating, irritability or progressive loss of consciousness
  • Stroke
  • Severe damage to your body's main artery (aortic dissection)
  • Chest pain
  • Heart attack
  • Sudden impaired pumping of the heart, leading to fluid backup in the lungs resulting in shortness of breath (pulmonary edema)
  • Sudden loss of kidney function
  • Complications in pregnancy (preeclampsia or eclampsia)
  • Blindness
Nov. 19, 2019 See more In-depth

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