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Categories > Heart Health > Blood pressure

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What your blood pressure numbers mean

» Your numbers at a glance

» Keep an eye on your stats

» Take control

High blood pressure, or hypertension, can lead to stroke, heart disease, chronic kidney disease and dementia, so controlling it is key to your health. The condition usually develops slowly and has no symptoms—that’s why your healthcare provider straps a cuff on your arm at every visit. He or she is checking your blood pressure to get information about what’s going on with your heart and inside your arteries. But what exactly do the numbers mean, and should you worry if one or both are high?

Your numbers at a glance

The top number, called the systolic pressure, records pressure in the arteries when your heart beats. The bottom number, the diastolic pressure, is the pressure when your heart is at rest. A normal, healthy reading is less than 120/80 mm Hg. High blood pressure is a reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher. If your numbers are between 120 and 139 over 80 to 89, you have prehypertension and may end up with full-blown hypertension.

Don’t worry if your reading is high at one appointment—you generally won’t be diagnosed with hypertension until your healthcare provider records a high reading at two different visits, as stress, worry and many other things can make your numbers spike temporarily.

Keep an eye on your stats

You can still be diagnosed with high blood pressure if one number is normal and the other is high. In the past, healthcare providers thought having high diastolic blood pressure was more dangerous than having high systolic, but experts now know that the top number is also important—especially for those over age 50.

If you have a consistently high top number and a normal bottom number, you have isolated systolic hypertension, the most common type in the over-50 crowd. That’s because as you age, systolic blood pressure rises as a result of stiff arteries and heart disease. Diastolic pressure, on the other hand, tends to rise until age 50, then levels off or drops.

Take control

In most cases, hypertension doesn’t have a specific cause. Sometimes, pregnancy or an underlying medical condition, such as kidney disease, can raise your blood pressure. And you’re more likely to develop high blood pressure if you’re overweight, inactive or stressed or if you smoke or eat an unhealthy diet. Some people can lower their blood pressure with healthy living (eating lots of fruits and vegetables, cutting back on salt and exercising regularly), but many need medications such as beta-blockers, diuretics or ACE inhibitors for the rest of their lives. Both hypertension and isolated systolic hypertension are treated the same way, but for people with heart disease and isolated systolic hypertension, healthcare providers take extra caution not to lower diastolic pressure below 70 mm Hg, as doing so could lead to heart attack.


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