By Timothy Aungst, PharmD, Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice at MCPHS University. Posted on June 11, 2019

An estimated 46% of U.S. adults have consistently high blood pressure that could lead to a diagnosis of hypertension. Hypertension can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, so people with hypertension often wonder how they got it, and many without hypertension ask if they are at risk of getting it later in life. Here, we’ll look at things that might cause blood pressure to go up, including risk factors and causes for hypertension.

Research shows that certain characteristics, or risk factors, can increase your chances of developing hypertension. While the following may not make you have hypertension for sure, they can increase your risk of having hypertension later in life.

• Male gender – Based on research, men overall seem to have a higher risk of developing hypertension compared to women. 

• Older age – Older people tend to experience higher rates of hypertension. For example, over 77% of men and 75% of women age 65 and older are estimated to have hypertension. In contrast, only about 30% of men and 19% of women age 44 and younger have hypertension. 

• Chronically high cholesterol and high blood sugar- If you have high cholesterol and high blood sugar over a long period of time, you can have a higher risk of having hypertension later in life.

Along with these risk factors, the American Heart Association’s most recent guidelines for diagnosing and treating heart-related diseases identifies the following issues as causes of hypertension. 

1) Genetics 

Some researchers believe that certain genes in your DNA can cause hypertension. Although there is little we can do to change our genetics at this time, telling your healthcare provider if your parents, grandparents, or siblings have hypertension can help them know if it runs in your family and if you might be at risk for hypertension. 

2) Being overweight or obese

Multiple studies show that people who are overweight or obese tend to have higher blood pressure than those who are not, and some have even suggested that significant excess weight is behind almost 40% of all hypertension diagnoses. If you are overweight, the best thing to do to reduce your risk for hypertension is to lose weight by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. 

3) Eating too much sodium

Regularly eating too much sodium (such as from table salt or the salt in processed foods) is known to increase your risk of hypertension. Americans seem to over-consume salt. The American Heart Association recommends eating less than 1500 mg of salt a day but on average, Americans eat over 3400 mg daily! Reducing that by just 1000 mg can have great benefits.   

4) Eating too little potassium

While high sodium intake can cause high blood pressure, not enough potassium could also be a problem. People who regularly eat a healthy amount of potassium may have lower blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends eating 3500 mg to 5000 mg of potassium a day. Eating too much potassium can also be bad and cause heart problems, so make sure to talk to your provider about your potassium levels and what kinds of potassium­containing foods you should eat. 

5) An inactive lifestyle 

The less active you are, the higher your risk of developing hypertension, regardless of age. To reduce your risk, ask your healthcare provider about an exercise routine that fits your age and health.

6) Excessive alcohol consumption

We’ve known for over a century that excessive alcohol consumption can cause hypertension. Not only does alcohol cause your blood pressure to rise, but high amounts of alcohol can increase your cholesterol levels, which can also be bad for your heart. For these and other health reason, it is important to limit your alcohol intake to less than two drinks a day for men and less than one drink a day for women.  

7) Medication side effects

Certain prescribed and over-the-counter medications can increase your risk for hypertension by raising your blood pressure as a side effect. Depending on your individual health circumstances, your doctor may adjust your dosage, switch you to a different medication, or treat your high blood pressure separately. 

8) Kidney problems 

The kidneys are very important organs, responsible for getting rid of many waste products and toxins when you urinate. Unfortunately, when the kidneys don’t work well, it can cause your body to retain fluid, leading to higher blood pressure and possibly, hypertension. 

9) Obstructive sleep apnea 

Surprisingly, many people with sleep apnea have high blood pressure, which can lead to hypertension. We think sleep apnea causes hypertension by interfering with your body’s normal breathing rhythm and oxygen supply. If you find out that you experience disrupted sleep (either on your own or from someone who has observed you sleeping), it is important to talk to your doctor about this. A sleep study can help you determine if you have sleep apnea and if you need a breathing device (known as a CPAP machine) at night.  

10) Hormone imbalances

Many hormones in your body help to control your blood pressure. When the balance of these hormones is off, you might experience a change in your blood pressure. Your doctor can help you confirm if your hormone levels are off with some simple blood tests. 

As you can see, some causes of hypertension can be managed with healthy lifestyle habits, such as keeping a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Other causes, like medication side effects or an underlying health problem, may require more clinical guidance from your healthcare provider.