Understanding Your Blood Pressure Numbers

Understanding Your Blood Pressure Numbers

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a serious condition that affects about one in three adults in the United States. It seldom has any symptoms, but can be damaging to the body, particularly the heart and blood vessels, if left untreated. The only way to detect the presence of high blood pressure is with a test. Fortunately, it is a simple, non-invasive test. Knowing your blood pressure numbers and understanding what blood pressure numbers mean is essential for preventing heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and other health issues.

There are two terms that are important in explaining how blood pressure is measured and what blood pressure numbers mean: systolic and diastolic. The numbers are shown as systolic/diastolic, with the systolic number on top or first, and the diastolic number on the bottom or second.

The systolic (top) number is higher. It measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart muscle pumps blood. The diastolic (bottom) number represents the pressure in the arteries as the heart relaxes between beats. (The letters mm Hg after the numbers are units measured in millimeters of mercury.)

Blood pressure is a numbers game, with the risk for developing health problems shown within a range of categories. Here is what blood pressure numbers mean for adults, according to categories defined by the American Heart Association:

Blood Pressure Category Systolic   Diastolic
Normal less than 120   and less than 80
Prehypertension 120 – 139 or 80 – 90
High Blood Pressure ( Hypertension Stage 1) 140 – 159 or 90 – 99
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension Stage 2 ) 160 or higher or 100 or higher
Hypertensive Crisis (Emergency Care Needed) Above 180 or Above 110

If your blood pressure reading is high, the physician will want to take several readings on different days and at different times, and may ask you to measure and record your blood pressure at home. More than one high reading is required to diagnose high blood pressure. If over time your numbers stay at 140/90 mm Hg or above, you will need treatment for high blood pressure.

Which number is more important?

The systolic, or top, number is the one that indicates whether there is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. This is especially important for people over 50. The fact is that with age comes stiffening of the large arteries and plaque build-up within the arteries, which leads to heart and vascular problems. 

What blood pressure numbers mean in terms of lifestyle

Even if your blood pressure is normal, it's important to do everything you can to maintain your heart health. First, if your doctor prescribes medication for high blood pressure, be sure you comply with the dosing instructions. Second, make a commitment to a heart-healthy diet and exercise. Avoid tobacco smoke and too much alcohol consumption, and reduce the amount of salt in your diet.

Knowing what your blood pressure numbers mean and taking steps to prevent or lower your risk of heart attack, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease may mean changing the way you live. The good news is that one of the results of a heart-healthy lifestyle is having more energy and feeling better in general, as well as watching your blood pressure numbers come down.

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