Pressure is simply the amount of physical force exerted on an object. In this case, blood pressure refers to the force exerted by blood pushing against the walls of blood vessels.
When blood pressure is too high, a person’s arteries are subjected to a continuous strain that, in time, can lead to life-threatening cardiovascular disease.
What do the readings of blood pressure mean?
Blood pressure is measured in ‘millimeters of mercury’ (mmHg) and is read for two values. For instance, the optimal blood pressure is 120 over 80 or 120/80mmHg.
The first value represents the systolic blood pressure, which is the highest pressure that the blood reaches when the heartbeats.
The second value is the diastolic blood pressure, which corresponds to the lowest level of blood pressure that occurs when the heart’s muscles relax between beats.
Measuring your blood pressure with a blood pressure monitor is important because having a high reading (hypertension) is not something you can notice or feel.
However, if blood pressure is measured just once and found to be high, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always too high. In order to get a reliable reading, blood pressure has to be measured on several different days while you are resting.
Signs and symptoms of high blood pressure
Usually, people cannot tell they have high blood pressure unless they have it measured. Anything above 140/90 is considered high blood pressure. However, occasionally people with high blood pressure report frequent headaches.
It’s important to note that your blood pressure will vary significantly and a single high blood pressure reading isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. If the reading is above this threshold after weeks of constant measurement, then you can safely presume that you may indeed suffer from hypertension.
Why blood pressure is so important to health
Although a blood pressure of 140 over 90 is considered normal, everyone should strive to lower it even further in order to stave off heart disease and strokes.
For instance, someone with a blood pressure reading of 135/85 is twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke as someone with a reading of 115/75
An optimal blood pressure is paramount to the structural integrity of your arteries. Imagine a copper pipe in a water supply system — after many years, it will corrode and form micro-wears from all the friction between the water flow and the pipe’s walls. Eventually, it will break, but its operating life can be extended if the water pressure doesn’t cross a critical threshold.
While this analogy isn’t perfect (arteries don’t corrode and some damage can be healed), your arteries will naturally weaken with age after countless liters of blood flowing through them.
High blood pressure increases the risk of having a heart attack, which can cause heart failure. However, poor health outcomes extend beyond the cardiovascular system.
Why your blood pressure is too high
There are a number of reasons why a person may suffer from hypertension.
As we age, blood pressure typically increases due to the wear and tear accumulated by blood vessels over the years. There are also genetic factors that may influence blood pressure. For instance, African-Caribbean and South Asia communities tend to be at a higher risk of high blood pressure. High blood pressure can also run in the family.
All other things being equal, high blood pressure is typically the result of lifestyle choices, particularly diet. Too much salt, not enough fruits and vegetables, and drinking too much alcohol can increase blood pressure. Being overweight and not exercising can also substantially increase the risk of hypertension.
Blood pressure chart
If you made it this far then you now know how to correctly read your blood pressure but perhaps you’re not entirely sure how to interpret the measurement. The chart below is a good place to start, as it shows the ranges of high, low, and normal blood pressure readings.
You may have noticed that only one of the two values needs to be higher or lower to count as either high blood pressure or low blood pressure. For instance, if your top number (systolic blood pressure) is higher than 140, then you have high blood pressure regardless of your bottom value (diastolic blood pressure). Likewise, if your bottom number is higher than 90, then you have high blood pressure regardless of the top number’s reading.
What constitutes high blood pressure by age?
It’s normal for your blood pressure to increase as you age. The table below should give you a rough estimate of what healthy levels should look like.
1 – 2
80/34 – 120/75
83/38 – 117/76
Ideal blood pressure by age.
Can your blood pressure ever be too low?
Low blood pressure, also known as hypotension, is generally anything below 90/60 mmHg. If any of the two values is lower than 90 or 60 for systolic and distolic blood pressure, respectively, this counts as having low blood pressure.
Generally, this is a good thing, because it means that the risk of a stroke or heart disease is minimal. Most people with hypotension do not require treatment.
There may be instances when a person’s blood pressure is low temporarily due to medication. And, sometimes, people can have low blood pressure naturally but this is no reason for concern in and of itself — although, in some instances, low blood pressure has been associated with depression.
However, if a patient feels dizzy or like fainting and blood pressure is low, a doctor’s appointment is warranted.
How to lower your blood pressure
You might be worried by your high blood pressure, but the good news is that it can be lowered to optimal levels with some proper foresight.
Although medication may be prescribed by a doctor in order to lower blood pressure, the safest course of action is to make long lasting lifestyle changes.
Diet is extremely important in this context. First and foremost, patients suffering from hypertension should be mindful of their salt intake. In fact, you may want to cut it out entirely out of your diet. Just remember that most of the salt you eat is actually found in products that are already prepared, such as breakfast cereals, ready-made meals, and bread. Be sure to check the nutritional facts label on the products you select from the supermarket.
Eating more fruits and vegetables can also help to lower blood pressure. A healthy amount is five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, where a portion weighs roughly 80 grams. Watch out for added salts when buying frozen or tinned fruits and vegetables from your local supermarket.
A healthy diet will also help you to mitigate another important risk factor for hypertension: being overweight. Exercising and a low-calorie diet can help you reduce your weight to more healthy levels — your blood pressure drops along with those extra pounds. Additionally, doing cardio also keeps the heart healthy.
Finally, be mindful of your alcohol intake. Both men and women should limit their alcohol consumption to 14 units per week, where a unit is equivalent to a small glass of wine or half a pint of beer.