110/90. 130/80. 140/90. Blood Pressure:
What do those numbers mean, anyway?
Dr. Kristi Reese, Family Medicine Physician with Capital Health Plan
We’ve all been there: sitting on the chair, arm propped out with blood pressure cuff around your bicep, when the nurse states two numbers that sound like a giant fraction.
Turns out, those numbers are very important to understand. But first thing’s first: what is blood pressure? Blood pressure is a measure of how hard the blood pushes against the walls of your arteries as it moves through your body.
It’s normal for your blood pressure to change throughout the day. The problem is if your blood pressure stays up, rather than going back down. When this happens, you’re said to have “high blood pressure.” Sustained high blood pressure damages the blood vessel walls, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney problems.
Unlike many other serious health conditions, high blood pressure doesn’t show noticeable symptoms. Most people don’t know they have high blood pressure until they go to the doctor for a routine check-up or an unrelated health concern. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less serious.
What about the numbers?
The first number your nurse or doctor reads, the top number of the fraction, refers to “systolic pressure” – how hard the blood pushes when the heart is pumping. The second or bottom number is your “diastolic pressure” – how hard the blood pushes between heartbeats, when the heart is relaxed and filling with blood.
Ideal blood pressure for an adult is 120/80 or lower. High blood pressure is 140/90 or higher. You may be wondering, “If my blood pressure is 130/90, I’m good, right?”
Not quite. If your numbers fall anywhere above 120/80 but below 140/90, you have “prehypertension” – meaning you’re headed for high blood pressure soon. Good news: people with prehypertension have the ability to reverse, or at least delay, high blood pressure by making lifestyle changes such as eating heart-healthy foods, exercising regularly, and limiting alcohol consumption.
But if you really want to reduce the chances of developing high blood pressure, don’t wait until you have prehypertension. Start now by limiting salt intake, avoiding saturated fats, and eating more fruits, vegetables, and fish.
About one out of three adults in the United States has high blood pressure, which is a startling statistic. May is High Blood Pressure Education Month, so the next time you go to the doctor, take the opportunity to talk to him or her about your blood pressure number.
For heart-healthy tips and to learn more about blood pressure, visit our Healthwise® Knowledgebase at www.capitalhealth.com.
Dr. Reese is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Capital Health Plan.