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Blood Pressure

Approximately one in four Americans have high blood pressure, and many don't even know it. This is your chance to learn what it is, what the risk factors are and the things you can do to possibly avoid it.

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the pressure of flowing blood against the walls of the arteries. It's measured in two numbers, one when the heart contracts, the other when the heart relaxes.

SYSTOLIC is the higher number and refers to the level of pressure when the heart contracts and pumps blood through the body. DIASTOLIC is the lower number and refers to the level of pressure when the heart relaxes between pumps.

High blood pressure, also referred to as hypertension, is a level of blood pressure consistently above normal. The following table lists the various numbers and what they mean.

Blood Pressure Chart

Only your doctor can tell you how often you need to check your blood pressure, but at the very least you should have it checked once a year during an annual physical exam.

Symptoms of high blood pressure, such as nosebleeds, racing or irregular heartbeat, headaches and dizziness only tend to emerge once it has become severe. Just because you don't have any symptoms, doesn't mean you don't have a problem.

When you're ready to get your blood pressure tested, keep in mind these factors that can cause blood pressure to temporarily rise: Caffeine, cold temperatures, exercise, full bladder, full stomach, smoking, some medications and stress.

Why is high blood pressure bad?

Because it forces your heart to work harder than normal. If the heart is over-worked for long periods of time it tends to enlarge and weaken. Arteries also suffer, becoming scarred, hardened and less elastic over time. Ultimately having high blood pressure increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, damage to your eyes, kidney failure, atherosclerosis and congestive heart failure.

What causes high blood pressure?

It was once believed that 90% of the time, the cause of high blood pressure was unknown. That was called "essential hypertension." Now we know, at least half of all hypertension cases are caused by excess sodium in the diet. When the cause is something external, it's called "secondary hypertension" and can usually be cured if the causal factor passes.

For more information on salt and high blood pressure, click here.

The most consistent risk factors of hypertension are: Heredity, race (African Americans are more susceptible), sex (men are more likely up to the age of 55, women over the age of 75), a high-salt diet, excess weight, excessive alcohol consumption, diabetes, people with gout or kidney disease, certain medications and a sedentary lifestyle.

If you find yourself with any of these risk factors, you can take steps to help prevent high blood pressure.

  1. Maintain a healthy weight and lose weight if you are overweight. Blood pressure tends to rise as body weight increases. Keeping your weight in the desirable range can help with blood pressure and improves overall health.

  2. Reduce the amount of sodium (salt) in your diet. The average American takes in more than 3 times the amount of sodium the United States Department of Agriculture recommends. Since there is no way to determine who may be adversely affected by excess sodium intake, everyone should look at ways to limit or reduce it.

  3. If you drink alcohol, do so only in moderation. That means no more than 1 or 2 drinks a day.

  4. If you smoke, stop. Not only might you reduce your blood pressure, you will significantly cut down on other health risks.

  5. Manage your stress. Take time out for yourself and learn relaxation techniques.

  6. Exercise regularly.

  7. Try the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan. This plan includes a weeks worth of healthy eating suggestions. Click Here to download the plan in Adobe PDF Format or copy and paste the following link into your browser window.


It isn't a cure, but it's the best advice I can give to keep you around for a long time!

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Updated 7/22/2007
Updated 812/18

  • Make sure your blood pressure reading is accurate.

    1. Use the restroom before your test. If your bladder is full it can raise your blood pressure because your nervous system thinks you're stressed.

    2. Relax for 15 minutes. When you engage in activity, any activity, your blood vessels constrict. When you sit for a few minutes it gives your vessels time to return to normal size, reducing your blood pressure to a more accurate reading.

    3. Avoid finger cuff monitors. When compared to monitors used around the arm, finger cuff monitors weren't nearly as accurate and they're prone to incorrect readings depending on finger positioning and body temperature.

    4. Don't put the blood pressure cuff on over clothing. Systolic pressure measurements can read up to 22 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) higher than when done on bare skin.

    5. Raise your arm to heart level. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute base their measurements on people with arms held at heart level.

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