When it comes to heart health, we’re often told to make sure we keep an eye on our blood pressure. We know that we want to avoid having high blood pressure, but what does it mean and how do we accomplish it?
What is blood pressure?
As your heart pumps blood throughout your body, it puts pressure on the walls of your arteries, called blood pressure.1 It’s normal for your blood pressure to fluctuate a little throughout the day but having unusually high or low blood pressure for an extended period can cause negative health effects.
When a healthcare provider takes your blood pressure, it is measured using two numbers. The first number is called systolic blood pressure, which is the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number, called diastolic blood pressure, is the pressure in your arteries when your heart is resting between each beat. For example, if your systolic blood pressure is 120 and your diastolic blood pressure is 80, the measurement would be taken as 120/80 mmHg.1
A normal blood pressure reading is under 120/80 mmHg. 1 A measurement higher than this is considered high blood pressure, also called hypertension. Having high blood pressure puts a strain on your heart, forcing it to work harder and less efficiently. It can also damage the walls of your arteries. Over time, this puts you at an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and other life-threatening conditions. 2
What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?
Most people with high blood pressure experience no symptoms before it’s too late. On occasion, people may experience headaches, shortness of breath, and nosebleeds. However, most people don’t realize they have high blood pressure until they are told by a healthcare provider or have progressed to a stage that is life-threatening. 3 That’s why it’s important to assess your individual risk for developing high blood pressure.
Who is at risk for high blood pressure?
There are two categories of risk factors for high blood pressure. The first category is related to who you are—these attributes are outside of your control. However, it is important to be aware of them so you can understand your risk of developing high blood pressure. 4
Family History Having a history of high blood pressure in your family increases your risk of developing high blood pressure.
Age As you get order, your blood vessels lose their elasticity, which can contribute to higher blood pressure.
Gender Men are more likely to develop high blood pressure than women until they are 64. At age 65 and older, women are more likely to develop high blood pressure than men.
Race Black people develop high blood pressure at a higher rate than people of any other racial backgrounds in the United States.
Chronic Kidney Disease Kidney disease can cause high blood pressure. Inversely, high blood pressure can also cause further kidney damage.
The second category of risk factors are modifiable factors. These factors can be modified through lifestyle changes to help prevent high blood pressure. 4
Lack of physical activity
An unhealthy diet
Being overweight or obese
Excessive alcohol consumption
Smoking and tobacco use
How to prevent high blood pressure
If you are at higher risk for developing high blood pressure, there are several changes you can make in your daily life to help maintain healthy blood pressure levels. 5
Eat a healthy diet low in sodium. A balanced, nutritious diet is a great first step to preventing high blood pressure. Limiting your sodium intake and eating fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and foods that are high in fiber benefits heart health.
Maintain a healthy weight. People with a higher BMI are at increased risk of developing high blood pressure. If you are overweight or obese, a healthy diet and regular exercise can help you lose weight.
Exercise regularly. Regular physical activity is a part of maintaining a healthy weight and good heart health. The CDC recommends that adults get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of physical activity each week.
Don’t smoke. Smoking and tobacco use can lead to high blood pressure. If you don’t smoke or use tobacco, don’t start. To get help quitting, talk to your doctor or local pharmacist about how to stop today.
Limit alcohol consumption. Excessive drinking can raise your blood pressure. The CDC recommends that men consume no more than two drinks per day and that women consume only one drink per day.
Get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep keeps your heart and arteries healthy. People who don’t get enough sleep are at a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Limit caffeine intake. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine on blood pressure than others. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned that you may have a caffeine sensitivity. 6
Reduce stress. Chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure. Finding time to relax and do the things you enjoy can help reduce stress levels.
It’s important to monitor your heart health to lower your risk of developing life-threatening side-effects caused by high blood pressure. If you are unsure of your blood pressure reading, talk to your doctor or local pharmacist about a blood pressure screening. If you have high blood pressure or are at an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, they may recommend lifestyle changes to keep your heart healthy.