Elevated blood pressure means that your blood pressure is slightly above what is considered normal. Some doctors refer to slightly elevated blood pressure as prehypertension. Elevated blood pressure will likely turn into high blood pressure (hypertension) unless you make lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise and eating healthier foods.
Anyone can have elevated blood pressure, even children, especially if they're overweight or obese.
Both elevated blood pressure and high blood pressure increase your risk of a heart attack, stroke and heart failure. Some research suggests that long-term (chronic) elevated blood pressure may contribute to cognitive decline. Weight loss, exercise and other healthy lifestyle changes can often control elevated blood pressure, and set the stage for a lifetime of better health.
Elevated blood pressure doesn't cause symptoms. The only way to detect it is to keep track of your blood pressure readings. Have your blood pressure checked at each doctor's visit — or check it at home with a home blood pressure monitoring device.
When to see a doctor
All people age 3 and older should have their blood pressure checked by a doctor at least once a year. You might need more-frequent readings if you have elevated blood pressure or other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Any factor that increases pressure against the artery walls can lead to elevated blood pressure. The buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries (atherosclerosis) can lead to high blood pressure.
Besides atherosclerosis, other conditions that can lead to elevated blood pressure or high blood pressure include:
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Kidney disease
- Adrenal disease
- Thyroid disease
Certain medications — including birth control pills, cold remedies, decongestants, over-the-counter pain relievers and some prescription drugs — also can cause blood pressure to rise temporarily. Illegal drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, can have the same effect.
Risk factors for elevated blood pressure include:
- Being overweight or obese. The greater your body mass, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the amount of blood going through your blood vessels increases, so does the force on your artery walls.
- Sex. Elevated blood pressure is more common in men than in women through about age 55. Women are more likely to develop high blood pressure after age 55.
- Race. Elevated blood pressure is particularly common among people of African heritage, often developing at an earlier age than it does in white people.
- Family history of high blood pressure. If a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, has high blood pressure, you're more likely to develop elevated blood pressure.
- Not being physically active. Not exercising can cause weight gain and increase your risk of elevated blood pressure.
- Diet high in salt (sodium) or low in potassium. Sodium and potassium are two key nutrients in the way your body regulates your blood pressure. If you have too much sodium or too little potassium in your diet, you're more likely to have elevated blood pressure.
- Tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco or being around others who smoke (secondhand smoke) can increase your blood pressure.
- Drinking too much alcohol. Alcohol use has been associated with elevated blood pressure, particularly in men.
- Certain chronic conditions. Kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea, among others, can increase the risk of elevated blood pressure.
Although elevated blood pressure and high blood pressure are most common in adults, children can be at risk, too. For some children, kidney or heart problems can cause high blood pressure. But for a growing number of kids, poor lifestyle habits, such as an unhealthy diet, obesity and lack of exercise, contribute to elevated blood pressure and high blood pressure.
Elevated blood pressure is likely to worsen and develop into high blood pressure (hypertension). Hypertension can damage your organs and increase the risk of several conditions including a heart attack, heart failure, stroke, aneurysms and kidney failure.
The same healthy lifestyle changes recommended to treat elevated blood pressure also help prevent hypertension. You've heard it before — eat healthy foods, use less salt, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, drink less alcohol, manage stress and quit smoking. But take the advice to heart. Start adopting healthier habits today.