What your blood pressure numbers mean
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.
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.