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High Blood Pressure/Hypertension

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the artery walls. The force is generated with each heartbeat as blood is pumped from the heart into the blood vessels. The size and elasticity of the artery walls also affect blood pressure. Each time the heart beats (contracts and relaxes), pressure is created inside the arteries.

The pressure is greatest when blood is pumped out of the heart into the arteries. When the heart relaxes between beats (blood is not moving out of the heart), the pressure falls in the arteries.

Two numbers are recorded when measuring blood pressure.

  • The top number, or systolic pressure, refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart contracts and pumps blood through the body.

  • The bottom number, or diastolic pressure, refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart is at rest and is filling with blood.

Both the systolic and diastolic pressures are recorded as "mm Hg" (millimeters of mercury). This recording represents how high the mercury column in the blood pressure cuff is raised by the pressure of the blood.

Blood pressure is measured with a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope by a nurse or other healthcare provider. You can also take your own blood pressure with an electronic blood pressure monitor. These are available at most pharmacies.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, directly increases the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. With high blood pressure, the arteries may have an increased resistance against the flow of blood, causing the heart to pump harder to circulate the blood. Usually, high blood pressure has no signs or symptoms. However, you can know if your blood pressure is elevated by checking it yourself or by having it checked regularly by your healthcare provider.

Blood pressure is categorized as normal, elevated, or stage 1 or stage 2 high blood pressure:

  • Normal blood pressure is systolic of less than 120 and diastolic of less than 80 (120/80)

  • Elevated blood pressure is systolic of 120 to 129 and diastolic less than 80

  • Stage 1 high blood pressure is systolic is 130 to 139 or diastolic between 80 to 89

  • Stage 2 high blood pressure is when systolic is 140 or higher or the diastolic is 90 or higher

Use these numbers as a guide only. A single elevated blood pressure measurement is not necessarily an indication of a problem. Your healthcare provider will want to see multiple blood pressure measurements over several days or weeks before making a diagnosis of high blood pressure and starting treatment. If you normally run a lower-than-usual blood pressure, you may be diagnosed with high blood pressure with blood pressure measurements lower than 140/90.

What are the risk factors for high blood pressure?

Nearly half of all Americans have high blood pressure, but it is particularly common in:

  • People who have diabetes, gout, or kidney disease

  • African Americans, especially those who live in the southeastern U.S.

  • People in their early to middle adult years;. Men in this age group have higher blood pressure more often than women in this age group.

  • People in their middle to later adult years. Women in this age group have higher blood pressure more often than men in this age group. More women have high blood pressure after menopause than men of the same age.

  • Middle-aged and older adults. More than half of all Americans ages 60 and older have high blood pressure.

  • People with a family history of high blood pressure

  • People who have a lot of salt in their diet

  • Overweight people

  • Heavy drinkers of alcohol

  • Women who are taking birth control pills (oral contraceptives)

  • People with depression

How does blood pressure increase?

The following conditions contribute to high blood pressure:

  • Being overweight

  • Having lots of salt in your diet

  • Not getting much exercise or physical activity

How is high blood pressure controlled?

These steps can help you control your blood pressure:

  • Take prescribed medicine exactly as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Choose foods that are low in salt (sodium)

  • Choose foods low in calories and fat

  • Choose foods high in fiber

  • Maintain a healthy weight, or losing weight if you are overweight

  • Limit serving sizes

  • Get more exercise

  • Drink fewer or no alcoholic beverages

Sometimes you may need to take daily medicine to control high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, have your blood pressure checked routinely and see your healthcare provider to monitor the condition.

Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Kang, Steven, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 4/27/2016
© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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