When the heart pumps blood through the body, it produces pressure against the artery walls. We call this blood pressure. When this pressure gets too high and stays high (hypertension), it damages the body and can lead to heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure.
When you have your blood pressure taken, the results will contain two numbers. The top number is the systolic blood pressure, which is the force exerted on the arteries when the heart pumps. The bottom number, or diastolic blood pressure, is the amount of force produced when the heart is resting between beats. Only one of these numbers needs to be classified as too high to be diagnosed with high blood pressure.
High blood pressure has no symptoms, so it is important to have it checked regularly to ensure that you are within a healthy range. The National Institutes of Health classify normal blood pressure as having a systolic value less than 120 and a diastolic less than 80. Blood pressure fluctuates when you are awake, when you sleep, and in response to stress. If your doctor determines that your blood pressure is staying above this normal level consistently, he or she may diagnose you with prehypertension. This means that your blood pressure reading is 120-139 (systolic) or 80-89 (diastolic). Being prehypertensive means that you are at risk for developing hypertension unless you make changes to prevent it. A blood pressure that measures 140 (systolic) or 90 (diastolic) or above is considered hypertension.
While your doctor may prescribe medication to help control your blood pressure, it is also important that you make lifestyle changes. A healthy lifestyle has been found to help delay or prevent a rise in blood pressure that occurs naturally with aging. To maintain healthy blood pressure or reduce high blood pressure, focus on the following best practices:
- Eat a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables.
- Consume fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day.
- Consume at least 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Exercise regularly.