Understanding Your Test Results: Blood pressure

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High blood pressure is a common and dangerous condition affecting 1 in 3 American adults. It is often called the “silent killer” as high blood pressure alone usually does not have outward symptoms and it is a risk factor in other diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and chronic kidney disease. Unfortunately, only 54 percent of people with high blood pressure have the condition under control.

What Is Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the measurement of the “force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood.” Blood pressure changes with mood and physical changes (such as nervousness, excitement, or engaging in exercise) but should fall back to baseline once the stimulus or activity stops.

What Does a Blood Pressure Measurement Mean?

Blood pressure measurement is conveyed using two numbers in fraction form. Blood pressure varies based on age and body size, but for an adult, the normal blood pressure range is below 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The first number is the systolic pressure. This is the blood pressure when the heart beats. Normal systolic blood pressure for an adult is less than 120 mmHg. The second number, listed as the lower part of the fraction, is the diastolic pressure. This is the blood pressure in between heartbeats when the heart is at rest. Normal diastolic blood pressure for an adult is less than 80 mmHg.

Stages of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is any measurement that falls above 120/80 mmhg, however, there are three separate stages that correspond with the severity of the condition.

“Prehypertension” is when the systolic blood pressure is between 120 and 139, and/or the diastolic blood pressure is between 80 and 89. Prehypertension means that blood pressure is elevated, but elevated at the lowest severity level. If it is not addressed, prehypertension can progress to hypertension and yield an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease.

“Hypertension Stage 1” occurs when systolic pressure lands between 140 and 159, and/or diastolic pressure is between 90 and 99. “Hypertension Stage 2”, the advanced stage of hypertension, occurs when systolic pressure is between 160 and 180 and/or diastolic pressure is between 100 and 110. At both stages of hypertension, the risk for heart attack and stroke is increased. If you have an out-of-range blood pressure result, you should consult your physician to build a plan for lowering your blood pressure to reduce your disease risk.

It is possible for blood pressure to be above hypertension stage 2. A hypertensive crisis occurs when systolic pressure is over 180, or diastolic pressure is over 110. If you receive a blood pressure reading that indicates a hypertensive crisis, seek medical attention immediately. Consequences of uncontrolled blood pressure in this range could include:

  • Stroke or heart attack

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Memory loss

  • Damage to internal organs

  • Pulmonary edema (fluid buildup in the lungs)

  • Loss of kidney function

Maintaining a Healthy Blood Pressure

Having a healthy lifestyle is essential to maintaining healthy blood pressure. Regular physical activity and healthy eating habits directly correlate to lower blood pressure and a lower risk of chronic diseases. For more information about staying active and eating healthy to keep your blood pressure in check visit the American Heart Association® Healthy for Good™ site.