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What is hypertension? How can obesity increase my blood pressure?

The connection between obesity and hypertension (high blood pressure) is well established in the field of medicine, but why do the conditions often develop alongside each other? And how can knowing more about their relationship help people manage their risk of serious consequences to their health?

5 min. read
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What does hypertension mean and what causes it?

Looking at the roots of the word ‘hypertension’ can help demystify the medical term used by healthcare professionals to describe high blood pressure. Linguistically speaking, the word can be broken down into two parts: ‘hyper’, meaning ‘over/above/beyond’ and ‘tension’, meaning ‘stretching’ or ‘strained’. With hypertension, your blood pressure is ‘above’ healthy levels, which in turn, causes strain on your blood vessels.

There are some conditions that can lead to the sudden development of high blood pressure, such as certain cancers or diseases that narrow the arteries that carry blood around your body. This is called secondary hypertension, as it comes second to another condition.

However, in the vast majority of cases (85-95%), there is no specific reason that can be pinpointed as the cause for high blood pressure.  This is called primary or ‘essential’ hypertension, which typically develops slowly over many years.

Although there is no single identifiable cause for primary hypertension, in recent years, researchers have concluded that obesity likely accounts for up to three-quarters of these cases.

How do obesity and high blood pressure impact each other?

Obesity is thought to lead to increased blood pressure in a number of possible ways:

  • Excess weight may put stress on the body that triggers a “fight-or-flight” response (medically known as your sympathetic nervous system).
  • It may change the balance of hormones in the body that regulates blood pressure.
  • It may put strain on your kidneys, which play a role in keeping blood pressure within a healthy range.
  • It may also cause almost undetectable levels of inflammation throughout the body that put pressure on blood vessels

While both high blood pressure and obesity independently increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, research suggests that the combination of the two conditions further exacerbates the risk.

How do you know if you have high blood pressure and what can be done about it?

Most people who have high blood pressure will not experience any symptoms, even if their levels could be considered dangerously high. So if you live with obesity or any other risk factors for high blood pressure, having your levels measured at least once a year by a healthcare professional is an important part of your overall care.

In most countries, your family doctor can check your blood pressure. In some countries, pharmacies also have blood pressure testing machines to check your blood pressure in store.

Knowing if you have high blood pressure is important to take steps to manage the condition and work towards lowering your overall risk of heart disease, heart attack or stroke, in consultation with your healthcare team.

While there is no ‘cure’ for high blood pressure, there are many widely available medicines for it, and adopting healthier lifestyle habits (e.g. not smoking, exercising and eating a balanced diet), can help and prevent high blood pressure.

If you or a loved one struggles with their weight, it doesn’t mean high blood pressure is inevitable, but it is best to regularly measure your levels with a healthcare professional, to support any additional steps to look after your health.

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  2. Leggio M, Lombardi M, Caldarone E, et al. The relationship between obesity and hypertension: an updated comprehensive overview on vicious twins. Hypertens Res. 2017;40: 947-963.
  3. Online Etymology Dictionary. Hypertension. Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/word/hypertension. Last accessed January 2024.
  4. Mayo Clinic Website. Hypertension. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/symptoms-causes/syc-20373410. Last accessed January 2024.
  5. Harrison D, Coffman T and Wilcox C. Pathophysiology of Hypertension: The Mosaic Theory and Beyond. Circulation Research. 2021;128:847–863.
  6. Stergiou G, Palatini P, Parati G, et al. 2021 European Society of Hypertension practice guidelines for office and out-of-office blood pressure measurement. Journal of Hypertension. 2021:39(7);1293-1302.
  7. World Health Organization. Cardiovascular diseases: Avoiding heart attacks and strokes. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/cardiovascular-diseases-avoiding-heart-attacks-and-strokes. Last accessed January 2024.


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