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Every year, a staggering 50,000 deaths are caused by high blood pressure. But because it has few symptoms most of us have no idea we could be affected.

We're all well aware that high blood pres­sure or hypertension is something we should worry about. But for three out of 10 of you reading this article, the reality is far more serious. You could already have high enough blood pressure to put you at very real risk of potentially fatal conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

The tragedy, according to the experts, is that lack of awareness means many people are suffering and dying needlessly 'If everyone's blood pressure was controlled – and with the right treatment it can be in nearly every case – we could prevent around 100,000 strokes and heart attacks and 50,000 deaths every year,' says Graham MacGregor, Professor of CardiovascularMedicine at St. George’s Hospital and Chairman of the Blood Pressure Association.

A major World Health Organisation study found half of all cardiovascular diseases are caused by high blood pressure. If you ask the average woman what her blood pressure reading is, however, she probably won't have the faintest idea. If you know yours, you should congratulate yourself as you're in the minority. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, almost three-quarters of the people interviewed had no idea what their blood pressure level was, and only a scant 16% knew what a healthy reading should be.

High blood pressure rarely has any external symp­toms, all the damage is internal, as the force of blood pumping at high pressure through your arteries strains your heart and weakens your blood vessels. The result is damaged, clogged arteries, which increases your risk of heart and kidney disease and makes you six times more likely to have a stroke or heart failure as your heart struggles to pump adequate supplies of oxygenated blood around the body.

On the face of it, controlling your blood pressure should be simple. Regular checks to identify those who have high or borderline pressure, together with medication or lifestyle changes to lower it, would be effective for most of us. Yet an incredible 80% of those with high blood pressure aren't being trea­ted for it. 'The reasons are complex,' says Professor MacGregor 'Some haven't been tested, as there's no national screening programme. Some are tested and aren't concerned enough to make lifestyle changes or take any medication. Others aren't being given the correct medication.'

While some GPs certainly need to be more alert to the dangers of high pressure. Professor MacGregor believes the onusis really on us. “We have to face the fact that half of us are going to have a stroke or heart attack,’ he says. “It’s time individuals took more responsibility for their own blood pressure. The only way you’ll know if it’s high or not is to have it measured. So make an appointment with your doctor and get it checked. Find out what the figures mean, and if your blood pressure is on the high side, talk to your doctor about ways to lower it.

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