Blood pressure isn’t just a number. Chronically elevated blood pressure (hypertension) significantly increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, erectile dysfunction, eye disease (retinopathy), and kidney disease. Heart disease and stroke are two of the top five causes of death in the US (heart disease is #1), and hypertension is such a big contributor to both that the CDC claims hypertension was at least partially responsible for 410,000 deaths in the US in 2014.
Hypertension matters, because high blood pressure kills.
Half of American adults have this life-threatening condition, yet many are unaware or simply don’t take it seriously. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Hypertension is manageable and even preventable, but you have to know your risk factors and get your blood pressure checked (regularly!) to see if you’re at risk. Let’s take a closer look at what blood pressure actually is, how hypertension works, and how you can prevent the effects of high blood pressure to stave off heart disease.
Table of Contents
- Blood Pressure Basics: Systolic & Diastolic Pressure
- What is Hypertension?
- Chronic High Blood Pressure
- How to Treat & Prevent High Blood Pressure
- Hypertension Medication
- How to Treat Hypertension with Lifestyle Changes
Blood pressure simply measures the force your blood vessels feel when your heart beats (and doesn’t beat), represented by two numbers—systolic and diastolic pressures. You see these as “110 over 75.”
- Systolic Blood Pressure: (The top number) is the pressure in your arteries while the heart is pumping blood.
- Diastolic Blood Pressure: (The bottom number) is the pressure in your arteries while your heart is filling between beats.
The first number (systolic pressure) measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart contracts and pumps blood throughout your body. Systolic pressure is basically your body’s “high water” mark. It’s when the soft flexible lining of your arteries endure the most force.
A “healthy” range for systolic pressure depends on a lot of factors like age, diet, and existing medical conditions (like diabetes), but generally, 95-120 is a healthy range for systolic pressure.
Hypertension doubles your risk for heart disease
The second number (diastolic pressure) is essentially “low tide” in your blood vessels. Diastolic pressure measures the force on your arteries while your heart is resting between beats. Again, this number differs from person to person, but 65-80 is a safe range for diastolic pressure.
Hypertension is just a fancy word for high blood pressure. It means that either your systolic and/or diastolic blood pressure is “above normal.” So if your systolic pressure is over 130 or your diastolic pressure is over 80, you have hypertension.
Fun fact: Governing medical bodies don’t typically change how you diagnose a medical condition just for the heck of it.
The health risks of hypertension are so serious that the AHS and ACC expanded what they consider high blood pressure to detect and treat hypertension as soon as possible in high-risk patients. And it’s making an impact.
Recent research shows that lowering your blood pressure below these levels decreases your risk of heart attacks and all-cause mortality. That’s right—lowering your blood pressure has a direct impact on your life expectancy. In fact, a person with a systolic pressure of 135 has double the risk of heart disease as someone with a systolic pressure of 115. Same goes for a diastolic pressure of 85 instead of 75. 10 points might not seem like much, but every blood pressure increase has a big impact on your health.
Everybody’s blood pressure goes up and down throughout the day. Walking to work, meditating, stressing about your Facebook feed, taking that sweet afternoon nap, and pounding a triple shot espresso all influence your blood pressure. There’s even a thing called “White Coat Hypertension” where people report higher than normal blood pressure readings due to the stress of just being in a doctor’s office with a cuff strapped to your arm. Blood pressure is a moving target. It’s not the end of the world if it spikes every now and then.
The real health problems start when your blood pressure becomes chronically elevated. Constantly “red-lining” your vascular system with high blood pressure comes with severe risks and far-reaching health concerns. It’s like stretching a rubber band too tight for too long—your body is going to break down under chronic hypertension.
But it’s not all bad news. Yes, hypertension contributes to a lot of serious conditions, but blood pressure treatment options are very effective. And the first step, of course, is knowing if you have high blood pressure. You can check your blood pressure for free at many pharmacies nationwide. CVS “Minute Clinics” and Walgreens Blood Pressure screening both offer in-store blood pressure test.
Studies even show that blood pressure measurements outside a doctor’s office are at least as accurate as those in the office (provided the equipment works well). If your results are high, take another reading. Try, try again. If they’re still high, see your healthcare provider and get checked out. Your doctor may order blood and urine tests or an EKG to diagnose other causes for your hypertension.
In some cases, medication is necessary to lower blood pressure. It really depends on how high your blood pressure is and other risk factors, like family history of heart attack and stroke. Based on these risks and your current lifestyle, your doctor may prescribe common hypertension medications like lisinopril, amlodipine, losartan, and hydrochlorothiazide.
Each medication is a great tool to manage blood pressure, but blood pressure meds can’t treat hypertension without you. Medication typically works best alongside systemic lifestyle changes like diet and exercise.
The four lifestyle changes that have been proven most effective to lower blood pressure are:
- Moderate Weight Loss: Losing at least 10 lbs. has been shown to significantly lower blood pressure.
- The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet: Eating a heart-healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy, and low in fat and saturated fat has been shown to lower blood pressure about as much as adding one blood pressure medication.
- Reducing Sodium & Alcohol: Reducing sodium, increasing potassium, and moderating alcohol intake (no more than two drinks daily for men and one drink a day for women) can reduce hypertension.
- Daily Exercise: As little as 90 minutes of endurance and resistance training every week has been shown to lower blood pressure. That’s about 15 minutes a day. But if that sounds daunting, start where you can and increase slowly over time. Every little bit helps.
Each of these steps alone has a modest effect on your blood pressure, but together the results are exponential. For example, losing 10 pounds with regular exercise and the DASH diet can be as effective as two blood pressure medications.
Hypertension Is a Big Deal
Blood pressure is more than just a number. Managing hypertension can reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, and early death. If you’re committed to making positive lifestyle changes and managing your blood pressure, you can reduce or even eliminate your need for blood pressure medication. Lower your blood pressure and take control of your health.
Geek Out: More Hypertension Resources
Not enough info for you? Geek out on blood pressure and hypertension with these studies and stats from the most trusted sources on the interwebs. And if you have any questions or you think we missed something important, leave a comment or book a consultation with me or one of these trained medical professionals and we’ll answer your questions and concerns in no time.
- Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults
- High Blood Pressure Fact Sheet
- Leading Causes of Death
- Description of High Blood Pressure
- Nonpharmacologic Management of Hypertension: What Works?
- Dietary Patterns and Blood Pressure in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials
- Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure With DASH — How Do I Make the DASH?
This information isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should never rely upon this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.