Understanding your blood pressure may be the most important thing you can do to protect your heart and your overall health.
“High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases,” said Myrna E. Alexander Nickens, M.D., associate professor of cardiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss.
About one in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, often called the “silent killer.”
That’s why controlling high blood pressure is one of what the American Heart Association calls Life’s Simple 7® — key health factors and behaviors that keep your heart healthy, lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, and improve your quality of life.
Blood pressure readings measure the force pushing outwards on the walls of your blood vessels as they carry blood and oxygen to your organs, called the systolic pressure, and the force created as the heart rests between beats, or diastolic pressure.
If that pressure is often high, the artery walls can become stressed over time and develop weak spots or scarring that can lead to increased plaque build-up and increased risk of blood clots.
“It’s like the pressure in your tires,” said Alexander Nickens, who is also an AHA volunteer. “If it’s too high, they could pop.”
Understanding blood pressure readings is very important. Your blood pressure is considered normal, or in the healthy range, if the systolic pressure is lower than 120 and the diastolic pressure is lower than 80, or 120/80. High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is defined as blood pressure of 140/90 or higher. Blood pressure between 120/80 and 139/89 is considered pre-hypertensive. It’s important to work with a medical professional to get it back into a healthy range.
Blood pressure can rise as you age, so even if it’s within the normal range now, it’s important to keep track of any changes that may occur over time.
Understanding your risk for high blood pressure is important because it isn’t caused by just one thing, but many factors including weight, diet, stress, exercise and use of alcohol or tobacco, Dr. Alexander Nickens said.
Family history can also play a role in increasing your risk, especially among African-Americans. Even with a family history of hypertension, you can control some lifestyle factors, including weight and diet, to lower your risks.
Most of the time, there are no symptoms of high blood pressure, but when high blood pressure goes untreated, it damages arteries and vital organs throughout the body. That's why high blood pressure is often called the "silent killer." “If someone hits your hand with a hammer, you’ll feel it right away, but if your blood vessels are being squeezed a little more over time, you may not notice it,” Alexander Nickens said.
Once you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension or pre-hypertension, checking your blood pressure regularly — once a week if your blood pressure isn’t well managed — can help you and your healthcare professional keep track of whether medication or lifestyle changes are working. Heart360 is a great resource to use to help you monitor your blood pressure. Heart360 is the American Heart Association's Cardiovascular Wellness Center that allows you to track and monitor your blood pressure and other health data.
Many pharmacies, drug stores or community services, such as fire departments, have blood pressure monitors available to the public, or you can buy a monitor to use at home.
Wherever you check your blood pressure, be sure to get into a resting position and make certain the cuff isn’t too loose or too tight around your arm, because it can result in an inaccurate reading, Dr. Alexander Nickens said.
“You should be in a sitting position for at least five minutes before taking blood pressure,” Alexander Nickens said. Learn the ABCs of blood pressure measurement.
Even if your blood pressure is normal now, be sure to get it checked at your regular healthcare visit or at least once every two years..
Medication may play a crucial role in managing your blood pressure. If you’re prescribed medication, don’t stop taking it if your blood pressure goes down without first consulting with your doctor, Dr. Alexander Nickens said.
Choose heart-healthy foods, including low-fat dairy, lean meats and fish and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Limiting excess sodium in your diet by avoiding packaged, processed foods is also important. Avoid tobacco smoke and limit alcohol to one to two drinks a day for men and one drink per day for women.
The most important thing you can do is to check your blood pressure regularly and don’t wait to take action, Alexander Nickens said. “It often takes a stroke or heart attack for someone to make lifestyle changes or take medication that could have managed his or her blood pressure and prevented it from happening.”
- Share our Manage Blood Pressure with Life's Simple 7 Infographic
- Learn the ABCs of Blood Pressure Measurement
- Learn about AHA/ASA’s Blood Pressure Monitoring Programs
- Striking a Balance: Less Sodium (Salt), More Potassium
- Processed Foods: Where’s all that salt coming from?
- High Blood Pressure Health Risk Calculator
- Learn about getting heart healthy one simple step at a time with the other 6 of Life's Simple 7®