What do the numbers mean?
Everyone would like to have healthy blood pressure. But what exactly does that mean?
When your doctor takes your blood pressure, it’s expressed as a measurement with two numbers, with one number on top (systolic) and one on the bottom (diastolic), like a fraction. For example, 120/80 mm Hg.
The top number refers to the amount of pressure in your arteries during the contraction of your heart muscle. This is called systolic pressure.
The bottom number refers to your blood pressure when your heart muscle is between beats. This is called diastolic pressure.
Both numbers are important in determining the state of your heart health.
Numbers greater than the ideal range indicate that your heart is working too hard to pump blood to the rest of your body.
For a normal reading, your blood pressure needs to show a top number (systolic pressure) that’s between 90 and less than 120 and a bottom number (diastolic pressure) that’s between 60 and less than 80. The American Heart Association (AHA) considers blood pressure to be within the normal range when both your systolic and diastolic numbers are in these ranges.
Blood pressure readings are expressed in millimeters of mercury. This unit is abbreviated as mm Hg. A normal reading would be any blood pressure below 120/80 mm Hg and above 90/60 mm Hg in an adult.
If you’re in the normal range, no medical intervention is needed. However, you should maintain a healthy lifestyle and healthy weight to help prevent hypertension from developing. Regular exercise and healthy eating can also help. You may need to be even more mindful of your lifestyle if hypertension runs in your family.
Numbers higher than 120/80 mm Hg are a red flag that you need to take on heart-healthy habits.
When your systolic pressure is between 120 and 129 mm Hg and your diastolic pressure is less than 80 mm Hg, it means you have elevated blood pressure.
Although these numbers aren’t technically considered high blood pressure, you’ve moved out of the normal range. Elevated blood pressure has a good chance of turning into actual high blood pressure, which puts you at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
No medications are necessary for elevated blood pressure. But this is when you should adopt healthier lifestyle choices. A balanced diet and regular exercise can help lower your blood pressure to a healthy range and help prevent elevated blood pressure from developing into full-fledged hypertension.
You’ll generally be diagnosed with high blood pressure if your systolic blood pressure reaches between 130 and 139 mm Hg, or if your diastolic blood pressure reaches between 80 and 89 mm Hg. This is considered stage 1 hypertension.
However, the AHA notes that if you get only one reading this high, you may not truly have high blood pressure. What determines the diagnosis of hypertension at any stage is the average of your numbers over a period of time.
Your doctor can help you measure and track your blood pressure to confirm whether it’s too high. You may need to start taking medications if your blood pressure doesn’t improve after one month of following a healthy lifestyle, especially if you’re already at high risk for heart disease. If you’re at lower risk, your doctor may want to follow up in three to six months after you’ve adopted more healthy habits.
If you’re 65 years or older and otherwise healthy, your doctor will likely recommend treatment and lifestyle changes once your systolic blood pressure is greater than 130 mm Hg. The treatment for adults 65 and older who have significant health problems should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Stage 2 high blood pressure indicates an even more serious condition. If your blood pressure reading shows a top number of 140 or more, or a bottom number of 90 or more, it’s considered stage 2 hypertension.
At this stage, your doctor will recommend one or more medications for keeping your blood pressure under control. But you shouldn’t rely solely on medications to treat hypertension. Lifestyle habits are just as important in stage 2 as they are in the other stages.
Some medications that can complement a healthy lifestyle include:
- ACE inhibitors to block substances that tighten blood vessels
- alpha-blockers used for relaxing arteries
- beta-blockers to decrease heart rate and block substances that tighten blood vessels
- calcium channel blockers to relax blood vessels and decrease the work of the heart
- diuretics to decrease the amount of fluid in your body, including your blood vessels
A blood pressure reading above 180/120 mm Hg indicates a serious health problem. The AHA refers to these high measurements as a “hypertensive crisis.” Blood pressure in this range requires urgent treatment even if there are no accompanying symptoms.
You should seek emergency treatment if you have blood pressure in this range, which may accompany symptoms such as:
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- visual changes
- symptoms of stroke, such as paralysis or a loss of muscle control in the face or an extremity
- blood in your urine
However, sometimes a high reading can occur temporarily and then your numbers will return to normal. If your blood pressure measures at this level, your doctor will likely take a second reading after a few minutes have passed. A second high reading indicates that you’ll need treatment either as soon as possible or immediately depending on whether or not you have any of the symptoms described above.
Even if you have healthy numbers, you should take preventive measures to keep your blood pressure in the normal range. This can help you lower your risk of developing hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
As you age, prevention becomes even more important. Systolic pressure tends to creep up once you’re older than 50, and it’s far
The following preventive measures can help lower or stave off high blood pressure:
Reducing sodium intake
Reduce your sodium intake. Some people are sensitive to the effects of sodium. These individuals shouldn’t consume more than 2,300 mg per day. Adults who already have hypertension may need to limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day.
It’s best to start by not adding salt to your foods, which would increase your overall sodium intake. Limit processed foods as well. Many of these foods are low in nutritional value while also high in fat and sodium.
Reducing caffeine intake
Exercise more often. Consistency is key in maintaining a healthy blood pressure reading. It’s better to exercise 30 minutes every day rather than a few hours only on the weekends.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Reducing alcohol intake and quitting smoking
Reduce your alcohol intake. Depending on your situation, you may need to stop drinking altogether. It’s also important to quit or refrain from smoking. Smoking is incredibly harmful to your heart health.
Low blood pressure is known as hypotension. In adults, a blood pressure reading of 90/60 mm Hg or below is often considered hypotension. This can be dangerous because blood pressure that is too low doesn’t supply your body and heart with enough oxygenated blood.
Some potential causes of hypotension can include:
- heart problems
- blood loss
- severe infection (septicemia)
- endocrine problems
- certain medications
Hypotension is usually accompanied by lightheadedness or dizziness. Talk to your doctor to find out the cause of your low blood pressure and what you can do to raise it.
Keeping your blood pressure in the normal range is crucial in preventing complications, such as heart disease and stroke. A combination of healthy lifestyle habits and medications can help lower your blood pressure. If you’re overweight, weight loss is also important in keeping your numbers down.
Remember that a single blood pressure reading doesn’t necessarily classify your health. An average of blood pressure readings taken over time is the most accurate. That’s why it’s often ideal to have your blood pressure taken by a healthcare professional at least once a year. You may require more frequent checks if your readings are high.