You wouldn’t start a road trip without knowing how much gas you had in your car, or how long it had been since you had the oil changed. But when’s the last time you checked in on your blood pressure?
Maybe you’re in your 20s or 30s (or even 40s) and still think you’re invincible, or that things like blood pressure and cholesterol are for older guys. But just like you’d take regular measurements on your car to stave off roadside assistance, checking in on your general health measurements can save you from a doctor’s visit or much, much worse.
Time for some elementary health: Blood flows through your body thanks to your heart, which acts as a pump, and your arterial system, which is the plumbing. Your arteries aren’t stiff, but elastic. Between the pumping from your heart and the ability of your arteries to supply their own force against the blood within, pressure is created—your blood pressure.
Both your heart and conditions within your arteries can affect your blood pressure. Stiff or narrowed arteries—from plaque build-up called atherosclerosis—can cause that pressure to rise. Your blood pressure, therefore, is one way to measure your cardiovascular health.
High blood pressure = a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes.
When you test your blood pressure, you’re testing two types of pressure: The pressure exerted against your arteries when the heart pumps and when the heart is at rest. This results in two different numbers:
Most attention is given to the first of these numbers, but a high reading in either can be used to diagnose “high blood pressure”, according to the American Heart Association.
A normal blood pressure reading is less than 120/80 mm Hg, but that varies depending on your age. What is average blood pressure by age? Well, here's a pretty good reference guide from Harvard University.
Once your levels begin climbing above 120/80, your doctor (and you!) should take note.
In 2017, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association (ACC/AHA) released new guidelines for what constitutes high blood pressure, or hypertension. The guidelines set a new, lower limit for the diagnosis: Anyone consistently getting readings over 130/80 would now be considered hypertensive. This marked a 10-point decrease from old guidelines and lassoed millions more people into a medical diagnosis. Needless to say, there was some controversy.
Controversy in the public eye largely focused on the millions of people who would now warrant a hypertension diagnosis, and possibly be brought under medical treatment. But additional debate in the scientific community was based on more nuanced perspectives, including whether the evidence of potential benefit warranted such a sweeping change.
Despite the controversy, the guidelines remain, and your doctor will likely have them in mind when evaluating your blood pressure readings. They include:
Elevated (120-129/<80): Elevated blood pressure means you’re at risk of becoming hypertensive, but aren’t there yet. Your physician will likely recommend making lifestyle changes to bring your levels down.
Hypertension Stage 1 (130-139/80-89): You have high blood pressure, but depending on the presence of other risk factors, treatment may not require medication.
Hypertension Stage 2 (>140/90): Your blood pressure is high enough that your doctor will prescribe medication to help manage it, and keep a close eye on your cardiovascular health, overall.
Lifestyle approaches can both prevent and reduce high blood pressure. This means that a healthy blood pressure is nearly entirely within your control. Considering what we know elevates your blood pressure, the following activities and tips are useful for maintaining a healthy blood pressure and reducing one that’s high:
When lifestyle changes alone are not enough to keep your blood pressure down, your doctor will likely prescribe medication. The list of high blood pressure medicines is long and each comes with unique risks of side effects and unique instructions. Interestingly, diuretics, or drugs that help your body eliminate excess water and sodium, are often the first line of defense.
Hypertension is a sign that your heart is having to work too hard. It’s one of several ways your body signals that something needs to change, or else. According to Mayo Clinic, not treating high blood pressure and continuing on with the lifestyle that led your blood pressure to rise in the first place can lead to:
The stakes are high. Check your blood pressure regularly, live a heart-healthy life and if you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, take your doctor’s recommendations seriously.