High blood pressure? What does that mean?

Blood pressure rises and falls during the day, but problems result if it stays elevated for too long. Know how blood pressure is measured, what numbers are healthy and unhealthy, and, more importantly, how to manage or even prevent this disease.

About two and a half million total resident deaths were reported in the U.S. in 2010. Heart disease and stroke were the first and fourth causes of death, according to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure can lead to both of these conditions, according to Michigan State University Extension.

What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of blood against our artery walls as it circulates throughout the body.  Blood pressure normally rises and falls throughout the day, but it can cause health problems if it stays high for too long.

How is blood pressure measured?
It is measured by an inflatable cuff wrapped around the arm.  A pressure gauge in the cuff is pumped in order to squeeze the blood vessels.  A health care professional listens to the pulse with a stethoscope while releasing air from the cuff.  The gauge measures the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart beats and when the heart rests.  The pressure when the heart beats is called the systolic pressure; when it rests it is the diastolic pressure.

What do the blood pressure numbers mean?
The gauge in the cuff measures your blood pressure in millimeters of mercury, which is abbreviated as mmHg.  A normal blood pressure level is less than 120 mmHg systolic and less than 80 mmHg diastolic, which we refer to as 120/80 or 120 over 80.

People are said to be at risk of developing high blood pressure, known as pre-hypertension, if their reading is from 120-139 systolic and from 80-89 diastolic, or 120-139/80-89.

We are considered to have high blood pressure when the systolic reading is 140 mmHg or higher and the diastolic is 90 mmHg or higher (greater than or equal to140/90).

Am I at risk?
You may be.  About one in every three adults in the U.S. has high blood pressure. And children can develop the disease as well.

Some factors for developing the disease are beyond our control.  These are primarily age and race or ethnicity factors.  More people tend to develop the disease as they age. African Americans have a higher prevalence of high blood pressure than whites.  High blood pressure can run in families too, as people inherit genes that make them more likely to develop the condition. In addition, about 60 percent of people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure.

The risk for high blood pressure can increase even more when age or heredity are combined with unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking cigarettes, being physically inactive or eating a poor diet.

What can I do?
If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure you probably were prescribed medication and should take it regularly!  Just as important is making lifestyle changes like eating a healthy diet, maintaining or losing weight, not smoking, and getting more physical activity.

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