Understanding blood pressure

Get the facts on blood pressure

Blood pressure measures the force of the blood against the walls of your arteries as your heart beats and rests. Having high blood pressure puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death in the United States.1

What do the numbers mean?

  • Systolic pressure (the top number) measures the pressure in the arterial walls when the heart contracts.
  • Diastolic pressure (the bottom number) measures the pressure in the arterial walls when the heart rests between beats.
  • Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. High blood pressure may not cause any symptoms. In fact, many people with high blood pressure do not even know they have it.

Check the chart. Which describes your blood pressure?

Take action and discuss with your primary care physician to decrease your risk.

Check the chart to learn which number best describes your blood pressure.
Blood Pressure Category Systolic mm Hg (upper number)   Diastolic mm Hg (lower number)
Normal Less then 120 and Less than 80
Elevated   Between 120 and 129 and Less than 80
High Blood Pressure Stage 1 Hypertension Between 130 and 139 or Between 80 and 89
High Blood Pressure Stage 2 Hypertension  140 or higher or 90 or higher
Hypertensive Crisis (Emergency care needed)  Higher than 180 and/or Higher than 120

Many factors may put a person at higher risk for developing high blood pressure

Some factors we cannot control like our genetics or age, but some are in our control. Adopting a healthier lifestyle may improve your blood pressure and is considered the first line in treating and preventing high blood pressure. Consider this list of risk factors related to lifestyle.2

Physical inactivity

An inactive lifestyle increases your risk of getting high blood pressure. Physical activity is great for your heart and circulatory system.

An unhealthy diet, especially one high in salt

Good nutrition from a variety of sources is critical for your health. A diet that is too high in salt, calories, saturated fat and sugar, carries an additional risk of high blood pressure.

Being overweight

Carrying too much weight puts an extra strain on your heart and circulatory system that can cause serious health problems. It also increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Tobacco use

Using tobacco may cause your blood pressure to temporarily increase and may contribute to damaged arteries. Exposure to secondhand smoke also increases the risk of heart disease for nonsmokers.

Drinking too much alcohol

Regular, heavy use of alcohol can cause many health problems, including heart failure, stroke and an irregular heartbeat. It can cause your blood pressure to increase dramatically and can also increase your risk of cancer, obesity, alcoholism, suicide and accidents.

Strategies for reducing your risk of developing high blood pressure

  • Don’t use tobacco.
  • Get plenty of exercise.
  • Reduce your use of alcohol if you do drink.
    Eat a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables
    Strive for a healthy body weight.
  • Find ways to cope effectively with stress (exercise is a great remedy).
  • When lifestyle changes are not enough, your health provider may prescribe medications to help lower your blood pressure.

What to keep in mind about your blood pressure history

  • Those living with diabetes or chronic kidney disease should keep blood pressure below 130/80 mmHg.
  • Prehypertension should be taken seriously because over time it can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney disease, vision loss or sexual dysfunction.
  • One high reading does not mean that you have high blood pressure. To diagnose hypertension, work with your health care provider to learn your personal target blood pressure.