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Know your blood pressure numbers to fight ‘the silent killer’

High blood pressure can lead to heart disease and stroke. Learn what your blood pressure numbers mean and how to maintain a healthy blood pressure.

It’s a health care ritual and one of the first things we do during a visit to the doctor. We roll up a sleeve and extend an arm to have our blood pressure checked.

Many of us then promptly forget the reading, especially if it is comfortably within the normal range. But we should all know our numbers -- what they mean, why they are important and what we can do to maintain normal blood pressure.

Here’s a primer to help.

Normal versus high blood pressure

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against our arteries as the heart pumps blood. A blood pressure reading contains two numbers that are measured as systolic and diastolic pressures. "Systolic" refers to blood pressure when the heart beats while pumping blood. "Diastolic" is the blood pressure when the heart is resting between beats.

Blood pressure numbers are written with the systolic number above, or before, the diastolic number. A normal reading is under 120/80. A high reading is 140/90 -- systolic 140 or above or diastolic 90 or above.

Risk factors

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, has been called “the silent killer.” There are no symptoms for it, and you can have it for years without knowing it. This is dangerous because high blood pressure can damage the body and lead to heart disease, heart failure, stroke and kidney failure. 

About 1 in 3 adults has high blood pressure, and more than half don’t have it under control.

Risk factors for high blood pressure include:

  • Family history
  • Advanced age
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor diet, including too much salt
  • Being overweight
  • Drinking too much alcohol

The risks for high blood pressure are greater among African Americans and women over 65. Stress and smoking are considered contributing factors, but science has not proven that they actually cause high blood pressure.

Fighting high blood pressure

Your blood pressure fluctuates. It’s lower while you sleep and higher when you are excited or active. It also tends to rise as we get older. The key is whether your blood pressure readings are consistently above normal. If your numbers are above normal but not considered high, you may have “prehypertension.” This means you could end up with high blood pressure unless you take steps to prevent it.

We can’t control all of the risk factors for high blood pressure – there’s nothing we can do about our family history or age. But we can follow a healthy lifestyle by drinking in moderation, exercising regularly, watching our weight and quitting smoking. When it comes to diet, the most important step we can take to reduce high blood pressure is to cut back on salt. On average, we eat about 3,400 mg of sodium a day, far above the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation of 2,300 mg per day.

People who have high blood pressure or struggle to bring it down may need medication to help them maintain safe numbers. And even if your blood pressure is normal, you should do whatever you can to improve your lifestyle to prevent it from rising over time.

Do you have questions about your blood pressure? Talk to your Providence health care provider about how you can maintain healthy readings.

Use our online tools to find a clinic or provider near you.