Two forms of high blood pressure have been described: essential (or primary) hypertension and secondary hypertension. Essential hypertension is a far more common condition and accounts for 95% of hypertension. The cause of essential hypertension is multifactorial, that is, there are several factors whose combined effects produce hypertension. In secondary hypertension, which accounts for 5% of hypertension, the high blood pressure is secondary to (caused by) a specific abnormality in one of the organs or systems of the body. (Secondary hypertension is discussed further in a separate section later.)

Essential hypertension affects approximately 1 in 4 individuals, yet its basic causes or underlying defects are not always known. Nevertheless, certain associations have been recognized in people with essential hypertension. For example, essential hypertension develops only in groups or societies that have a fairly high intake of salt, exceeding 5.8 grams daily. Salt intake may be a particularly important factor in relation to essential hypertension in several situations, and excess salt may be involved in the hypertension that is associated with advancing age, African American background, obesity, hereditary (genetic) susceptibility, and kidney failure(renal insufficiency). The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends healthy 19 to 50-year-old adults consume only 3.8 grams of salt to replace the average amount lost daily through perspiration and other needs. 

Genetic factors are thought to play a prominent role in the development of essential hypertension. However, the genes for hypertension have not yet been identified. The current research in this area is focused on the genetic factors that affect the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system. This system helps to regulate blood pressure by controlling salt balance and the tone (state of elasticity) of the arteries.

Approximately 30% of cases of essential hypertension are attributable to genetic factors. For example, in the United States, the incidence of high blood pressure is greater among African Americans than among Caucasians or Asians. Also, in individuals who have one or two parents with hypertension, high blood pressure is twice as common as in the general population. Rarely, certain unusual genetic disorders affecting the hormones of the adrenal glands may lead to hypertension. (These identified genetic disorders are considered secondary hypertension.)

The vast majority of patients with essential hypertension have in common a particular abnormality of the arteries: an increased resistance (stiffness or lack of elasticity) in the tiny arteries that are most distant from the heart (peripheral arteries or arterioles). The arterioles supply oxygen-containing blood and nutrients to all of the tissues of the body. The arterioles are connected by capillaries in the tissues to the veins (the venous system), which returns the blood to the heart and lungs. Just what makes the peripheral arteries become stiff is not known. Yet, this increased peripheral arteriolar stiffness is present in those individuals whose essential hypertension is associated with genetic factors, obesity, lack of exercise, overuse of salt, and aging. Inflammation also may play a role in hypertension since a predictor of the development of hypertension is the presence of an elevated C reactive protein level (a blood test marker of inflammation) in some individuals.


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