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High blood pressure is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure, peripheral vascular disease and renal failure. The risk of disease increases as the level of blood pressure increases. High blood pressure is also associated with other risk factors.

What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force exerted by the blood on the walls of the arteries and is written as systolic/diastolic (e.g. 120/80 mmHg, stated as '120 over 80').

For use in Australian surveys, high blood pressure is defined as:

  • systolic blood pressure (SBP) greater than or equal to 140 mmHg, or
  • diastolic blood pressure (DBP) greater than or equal to 90 mmHg, or
  • receiving medication for high blood pressure.

Major causes of high blood pressure

The causes of high blood pressure are both biomedical and lifestyle oriented. Major causes include overweight, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, dietary salt intake and nutrition patterns which involve a low intake of fruit and vegetables and a high intake of saturated fat.

Stress raises blood pressure transiently but in the long term may have indirect effects by influencing eating, drinking smoking and physical activity patterns. Tobacco smoking increases the risk of heart attack and stroke threefold in hypertensive individuals.

How many Australians have high blood pressure?

  • The 1999-2000 Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study (which took blood pressure measurements) indicates that around 3.7 million Australians over the age of 25 had high blood pressure or were on medication for that condition.
  • This equates to 32% of men and 27% of women.
  • Based on self-reports from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' National Health Survey 2004-05, it is estimated that about 2.1 million Australians have high blood pressure. This corresponds to 10% of the population. However, self-reported data are not as reliable as measured data.
  • There has been a decline in the proportion of people with high blood pressure and/or receiving treatment since the 1980s.
  • There has also been a decline in average blood pressure levels since the 1980s.
  • However, data from the 2004-05 study of general practice activity in Australia show that high blood pressure is the most common problem managed by general practitioners, accounting for 6% of all problems managed.

Further information

For more information see Chapter 3 of Australia's Health 2010.