Genetic Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the pressure of blood pumping against artery walls is higher than it should be. It's defined as having a systolic (upper number) blood pressure reading of 130 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) or higher, and/or a diastolic (lower number) blood pressure reading of 80 mmHg or higher.

High blood pressure is considered a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and it can also damage the brain, kidneys, and eyes. Nearly half of all U.S. adults have high blood pressure, including nearly 75% of those over 60 years old. High blood pressure usually doesn’t have symptoms, which is why it’s known as the “silent killer.”

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There are two types of high blood pressure: primary (also called essential) hypertension, which doesn’t have a known cause, and secondary hypertension, which is the result of other conditions that raise blood pressure.

Hypertension can be hereditary, which means if your parents or other close family members have high blood pressure, you are at higher risk of developing it. This article will take a closer look at the genetic risk factors for high blood pressure, along with the ones you can control.

What Are Systolic and Diastolic Numbers?

A blood pressure reading has two numbers: an upper number, called systolic, and a lower number, called diastolic. The systolic number measures the pressure against your arteries when your heart contracts to pump blood. The diastolic reading measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart relaxes between beats.

Genetic Risk Factors

Genetic risk factors are those you are born with and can’t control. These risk factors play a role in your likelihood of developing high blood pressure.

Family History

Having a parent with high blood pressure raises your risk of developing hypertension, especially if both parents have the condition. Research has found that having grandparents with hypertension also raises your risk of developing the condition, especially if a grandparent developed hypertension before the age of 55.

According to research, genetics plays a bigger role in whether women develop hypertension, especially early-onset hypertension, than it does in men.

Age

Approximately 22% of adults age 18–39 have high blood pressure compared to more than 55% of adults age 40–59. By age 60 and over, more than 74% of adults have high blood pressure.

One reason for this is that, as you age, you're more likely to have inflammation and endothelial dysfunction, or stiffening of the heart’s large blood vessels. These changes increase the chance of developing high blood pressure.

Sex

Men younger than age 65 have higher levels of high blood pressure compared to women of the same age. However, once a woman reaches menopause (the time when periods have stopped for 12 months in a row), risk for high blood pressure levels out with that of men. The decline of female sex hormones, especially estrogen, likely plays a role in women’s risk of hypertension going up after menopause.

Race

Black Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure than other racial and ethnic groups, and are more likely to develop the condition earlier in life. They are also more likely to have severe high blood pressure. Hispanics and non-Hispanic Asians in the United States have lower rates of high blood pressure than both non-Hispanic Blacks and non-Hispanic Whites.

In addition to genetics, factors such as income levels and access to health care contribute to higher rates among certain groups.

Modifiable Risk Factors

Modifiable risk factors are ones that you have some control over. Here's a look at some of the top modifiable risk factors for high blood pressure.

Unhealthy Diet

Eating too much sodium (salt) raises your risk of high blood pressure. Processed foods and food from restaurants are typically high in sodium and account for the majority of most people’s sodium intake. Experts recommend consuming less than 1,500 milligrams (about 2/3 teaspoon) of sodium per day.

Not eating enough potassium can also raise your risk for hypertension. Potassium helps balance some of the harmful effects of eating too much sodium. Foods such as bananas, potatoes, and beans are good sources of potassium.

Eating too much red meat, sugary foods and beverages, plus saturated and trans fats, can also contribute to high blood pressure.

Obesity

Being overweight increases the incidence of high blood pressure because it puts more strain on your heart, forcing it to work harder to pump blood. Losing as little as 5 to 10 pounds has been found to help lower blood pressure.

High Cholesterol

Having too much LDL (bad) cholesterol and too little HDL (good) cholesterol is linked to an increased risk for hypertension. Cholesterol can build up and form plaque on arteries, making it harder for the heart to pump blood through them.

Lack of Physical Activity

Being physically active helps lower the risk of hypertension because it helps keep arteries flexible. It's recommended to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity. Examples are brisk walking or bike riding.

Alcohol Consumption

Limiting your alcohol intake can help prevent hypertension. Alcohol consumption should be capped at one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men. One drink is defined as one 12-ounce beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

Cigarette Smoking

While the link between cigarette smoking and hypertension is still unclear, it is known that smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke increases the risk of plaque buildup in the arteries. Too much plaque in the arteries can contribute to hypertension.

Conditions Linked to High Blood Pressure

Some medical conditions make it more likely for you to have high blood pressure, or can be caused by high blood pressure.

Diabetes

More than half of all people with diabetes also have high blood pressure. High blood pressure is more common in people with type 2 diabetes who experience obesity, and in type 1 diabetics who are older or have kidney disease.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes brief periods in which a person stops breathing during sleep. Each time this happens, it raises the body’s blood pressure. The stress on the body can cause blood pressure to remain elevated, leading to hypertension. Sleep apnea also causes sleep deprivation, which can contribute to hypertension.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are two types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): This type is caused by the airway collapsing and blocking airflow into the lungs. Symptoms include snoring and gasping for air. OSA is linked to hypertension.
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA): This type is caused by a lack of communication between the brain and muscles that control breathing. CSA is not linked to hypertension.

Kidney Disease

Uncontrolled hypertension can cause harm to the kidneys and is the second leading cause of kidney failure in the United States. High blood pressure causes the blood vessels to the kidneys to narrow, which affects how the kidneys work.

When the kidneys don’t work well, they can’t remove waste or fluid from the body. This extra fluid can cause increased blood pressure, furthering damaging the kidneys and resulting in kidney failure.

Blood Pressure Management

Less than half of people with high blood pressure have it under control. Healthcare providers will typically first recommend lifestyle changes to control hypertension. Some people may need to go on medication.

The six types of blood pressure medications are:

  • Diuretics: These medications help the body get rid of extra water and sodium.
  • Beta-blockers: These medications reduce your heart rate and output of blood.
  • Vasodilators, angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs), and calcium channel blockers: These medications all help relax constricted blood vessels.

Summary

High blood pressure affects almost half of all Americans and is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. Having close family members with hypertension raises your risk of developing the condition. Your risk also increases with age. Black Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure than any other race or ethnic group.

You can help reduce your risk of high blood pressure by eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, limiting your alcohol consumption, and quitting smoking if you're a smoker. High blood pressure can be treated with prescription medications; they work best when combined with healthy lifestyle changes.

A Word From Verywell

Because high blood pressure typically has no symptoms, it’s important that you regularly monitor your own blood pressure. This can be done using an at-home device or in a medical office. If your blood pressure is high, take steps to get it under control. The longer high blood pressure continues, the more damage it can do to the body.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can hypertension be prevented?

    Hypertension can be prevented by making healthy lifestyle changes, including eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and limiting alcohol.

  • How long can you live with high blood pressure?

    You can live many years with high blood pressure as long as it’s kept under control. People with high blood pressure will need to take steps, including healthy lifestyle changes and possibly taking medications, to keep it under control for the rest of their lives.

  • What foods are good for your heart?

    Foods high in potassium such as bananas, beans, and potatoes are good for your heart. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, and skinless poultry and fish are also beneficial for the heart.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cathy Nelson
Cathy Nelson has worked as a writer and editor covering health and wellness for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in print and online in numerous outlets, including the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News.