Just over a year ago, my father suffered a stroke caused by unchecked hypertension. For years my siblings and I urged him to seek some form of therapeutic intervention in order to manage his high blood pressure, but to little avail. Over time, chronic elevations in his blood pressure led to the development of multiple brain aneurysms, which are basically balloon-like bulges in the walls of arteries that supply the brain. Without treatment, these aneurysms ultimately grew and began to rupture causing severe bleeding and damage in and around his brain (hemorrhagic stroke).

Believe it or not, stories like my father’s are more common than you might think.

In fact, nearly 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year and hypertension is a primary culprit.

Sadly, hypertension is a sort of “silent killer” because it typically has no symptoms until the damage has already been done. If left uncontrolled, high blood pressure can trigger other potentially life-threatening events like heart attack and kidney failure. Although the development of hypertension is a complex process that’s closely linked to inevitable factors like genetics, you can greatly reduce your risk by making healthy lifestyle choices and getting regular checkups to monitor your blood pressure and other vital signs.

Factors that Affect Blood Pressure

The risk of high blood pressure is largely influenced by numerous uncontrollable and controllable factors. Besides genetics, other factors that are uncontrollable include family history, age, gender as well as race and ethnicity. Lifestyle factors are among those that are controllable when it comes to the development of high blood pressure. For example, tobacco use is the single greatest avoidable risk factor for hypertension and related complications like stroke and heart attack.

Related Article: 3 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of a Heart Attack

In addition to tobacco use, excessive amounts of dietary sodium, inadequate exercise levels, and long-term exposure to stress can also impact blood pressure levels. I’ll discuss each of these factors separately in the following paragraphs.

Excessive Dietary Sodium Intake. While a significant amount of sodium is necessary for proper functioning of the body, high dietary intakes can substantially drive the progression of hypertension. Large amounts of sodium are housed in many commonly consumed foods. These include fast foods and precooked frozen meals, canned goods, prepackaged, ready-to-eat meat products, commercially baked goods, pasta sauces, salad dressings and other condiments. To reduce your risk of high blood pressure, it’s important to limit your consumption of sodium to less than 2,000-2,400 mg of sodium per day.

Related Article: How to Boost the Flavor of Your Foods Without Salt

Inadequate Amounts of Exercise. Refraining from exercise can lead to unnecessary elevations in blood pressure and overall poor health. Remarkably, one of the major benefits of exercise involves its unique effects on blood vessel structure and function. When performed on a regular basis, exercise encourages normal dilation (widening) of blood vessels in ways that support blood flow. Healthy blood flow inherently lowers the risk of hypertension by reducing pressure within the arteries while also enhancing delivery of oxygen and nutrients to all the body’s cells and organs, which promotes optimal health.

Related Article: Five Interesting Ways to Exercise Without Exercising

Long-Term Exposure to Stress. In and of itself, stress is a major underlying culprit in the development of hypertension and many other chronic conditions including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In stressful situations, the body responds by releasing a powerful steroid hormone called cortisol. Continuous release of cortisol in response to repeated bouts of stress causes the body to retain large amounts of sodium and water. Sodium and water retention greatly increases the likelihood of high blood pressure, mainly due to an excessive buildup of fluid in the arteries.

Related Article: Stress-Major Culprit Behind Weight Gain, Belly Fat, and Chronic Disease

Monitoring Blood Pressure Levels

If left undiagnosed and untreated, hypertension is deadly, which is why blood pressure tests are generally a routine component of physicians’ visits for individuals both young and old. Unfortunately, oftentimes people are simply told their test results are “normal” without further explanation. During a blood pressure test, “systolic” and “diastolic” blood pressures are determined in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and typically recorded as a ratio (110/70 mmHg). In this ratio, the systolic value (top number) represents the maximum pressure within the arteries while the diastolic value (bottom number) indicates the minimum pressure.

An “ideal” or “normal” ratio for blood pressure is one that’s less than 120/80 while ratios above 140/90 are considered “high”. Other ratios that lie within a grey area between normal and high are typically classified as “prehypertension”, which is essentially indicative of increased risk. Since blood pressure tends to fluctuate throughout the day and even in the presence of anxiety or stress, a single elevated reading doesnt mean you have hypertension. For this very reason, it’s always a good idea to track your blood pressure levels at home by way of a good portable monitor.

Taking the Right Steps to Manage Your Blood Pressure

Evidence has long suggested that when coupled with regular blood pressure monitoring, healthy lifestyle choices can substantially reduce your risk of developing hypertension. In addition, such behaviors can significantly lower the likelihood of related complications (stroke, heart attack, and kidney disease) if you’ve already been diagnosed. While my father was a non-smoker who was regularly physically active, his diet wasn’t at all the best. He also served as the full-time caregiver for my mother who has been disabled for nearly 20 years, a role that inherently came with a great deal of stress.

Related Article: The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Eating Plan

Unfortunately, my father never monitored (let alone treated) his high blood pressure levels in spite of headaches, dizzy spells, and other alarming signs. He was a strong and proud man who was reluctant to receive help from others and never wanted to burden anyone. But, to my family’s dismay, my father ultimately succumbed to complications resulting from a second hemorrhagic stroke. When all was said and done he’d suffered two strokes and an untimely death within a span of just nine months.

Learn how you can protect yourself from this silent killer and its serious consequences. Visit the American Heart Association’s website today!