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The Basics of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is the most common cardiovascular disease. Some call it: "The Silent Killer!"

If you have high blood pressure, you'll probably find out about it during a routine checkup. Or, you may have noticed a problem while taking your own blood pressure. Only your doctor can give you a definite diagnosis! When in doubt, follow-up with your own private physician or family doctor.

Blood pressure refers to the force of blood pushing against artery walls as it courses through the body. Like air in a tire or water in a hose, blood fills arteries to a certain capacity. Just as too much air pressure can damage a tire or too much water pushing through a garden hose can damage the hose, high blood pressure can threaten healthy arteries and lead to life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

Hypertension is the leading cause of stroke and a major cause of heart attack. In the United States alone, approximately 73 million people have high blood pressure.

How Is Blood Pressure Measured?

A blood pressure reading appears as two numbers. The first and higher of the two is a measure of systolic pressure, or the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats and fills them with blood. The second number measures diastolic pressure, or the pressure in the arteries when the heart rests between beats.

Normal blood pressure rises steadily from about 90/60 at birth to about 120/80 in a healthy adult. It's also normal for blood pressure to vary from person to person, even from one area of your body to another. But when blood pressure remains consistently high, talk with your doctor about treatment. Consistently high blood pressure forces the heart to work far beyond its capacity. Along with injuring blood vessels, hypertension can damage the brain, eyes, and kidneys.

People with blood pressure readings of 140/90 or higher, taken on at least 2 occasions, are said to have high blood pressure. If the pressure remains high, your doctor will probably begin treatment. People with blood pressure readings of 200/120 or higher need treatment immediately. People with diabetes are treated if their blood pressure rises above 130/80, since they already have a high risk of heart disease.

What is a normal, healthy blood pressure?

  • Systolic: 119 or lower
  • Diastolic: 79 or lower

What is a pre-hypertension reading?

  • Systolic: 120 to 139
  • Diastolic: 80 to 89

What is a high blood pressure reading?

Stage 1

  • Systolic: 140 to 159
  • Diastolic: 90 to 99

Stage 2

  • Systolic: 160 or higher
  • Diastolic: 100 or higher

Source: National Institutes of Health/gc