Blood Pressure Basics
Blood pressure readings are measured using a manual pump, cuff and stethoscope or using an automatic blood pressure monitoring machine. No matter which method is used, a blood pressure reading consists of two numbers that are written like a fraction with an upper number and a lower number. In science, pressure is often measured as millimeters of mercury, which is why blood pressure readings include a “mm HG” designation, such as 120/80 mm HG.
In a blood pressure reading, the top number is the measurement for systolic pressure, which indicates the pressure of blood against the artery walls as the heart pumps and pushes it out to the rest of the body. The lower number is the measurement for diastolic pressure, which indicates the pressure of blood against the artery walls in between beats, when the heart is at rest.
Blood Pressure Ranges
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the normal blood pressure range consists of a systolic (top number) reading between 90 and 120 and a diastolic (bottom number) reading between 60 and 80. You often hear 120/80 cited as the ideal target blood pressure, but some doctors are more conservative and prefer to see lower numbers.
When the systolic pressure falls between 121 and 129 with the diastolic staying at less than 80, blood pressure is classified as elevated. A reading of 130 to 139 systolic and 80 to 89 diastolic falls within a category known as stage 1 hypertension. Stage 2 hypertension is the classification when a blood pressure reading is higher than 140/90. If blood pressure exceeds 180/120, it is considered a dangerous hypertensive crisis, and you should seek immediate medical attention for an evaluation.
Causes of High Blood Pressure
Many factors contribute to high blood pressure, and certain risk factors put people at greater risk of developing it. As a general rule, systolic numbers tend to rise after the age of 50, mainly due to decreased elasticity in the blood vessels. Additionally, plaque builds up in the arteries as they stiffen, reducing the blood flow. This can lead to cardiac and vascular disease.
Men tend to be more susceptible to high blood pressure until their mid-60s, when the risk flips, and women become more likely to develop it. Family history as well as a history of kidney disease can increase the likelihood of developing high blood pressure. Various other health conditions, such as diabetes and sleep apnea, have been linked to high blood pressure as well. In terms of race, African Americans often experience more severe cases of hypertension and develop it more often than other races.
While these types of risk factors aren’t within your control, that isn’t true for all the causes of hypertension. Poor diets high in salt, sugar and saturated fats can lead to high blood pressure and also contribute to obesity, which is another risk factor for developing the disease. Excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, stress and a sedentary lifestyle are also key contributors to high blood pressure.
Treatment of High Blood Pressure
Various treatments — both natural and pharmaceutical — are available for high blood pressure. If the blood pressure is only mildly elevated, your doctor may start by recommending specific lifestyle changes that can help you control your blood pressure. Depending on your current lifestyle, these suggestions could include quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol, learning to manage stress, losing weight, exercising, reducing salt intake, eating healthy foods and drinking more water.
If these methods aren’t effective or your blood pressure is more than slightly elevated, your doctor may prescribe medication to help reduce your blood pressure. Medication comes in many forms, including diuretics, beta blockers and calcium channel blockers. Appropriate lifestyle changes are sure to be recommended as well.
In addition to physical checkups at your doctor’s office, you can monitor your blood pressure readings at home. Automatic wrist monitors and arm blood pressure cuffs are sold at local and online pharmacies and big box stores to help you check your blood pressure at any time. They are sometimes even covered by insurance plans.
Serious Symptoms of High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure can cause problems at any level, but it is particularly dangerous at levels at or exceeding 180/120. A hypertensive crisis could involve very serious symptoms, such as chest pain, vision changes, dizziness and difficulty communicating, and could even lead to a stroke. If blood pressure readings are very high, you should contact 911 or have someone drive you to an emergency room for immediate evaluation.