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Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force of the blood on the artery walls as the heart pumps blood through the body. The arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

The heart pumps blood through the blood vessels by contracting. Each time the heart contracts, the blood pushes harder against the walls of the arteries than it does when the heart rests between beats. This means that the pressure of the blood on the artery walls is greatest each time the heart contracts. This is the systolic pressure, the higher number in a blood pressure reading. When the heart rests between beats, the pressure of blood on artery walls is lower. This is the diastolic pressure, the lower number in a blood pressure reading.

These 2 levels of blood pressure—systolic and diastolic—are measured when someone takes your blood pressure. The pressures are measured in millimeters of mercury. For example, in the blood pressure reading of 120/80 ("120 over 80"), 120 is the systolic pressure. The second number, 80, is the diastolic pressure.

Normal, healthy blood pressure is less than 120/80. Blood pressure can rise and fall with exercise, rest, stressful emotions, or pain. However, if you have several measurements over 120/80, you may have pre-high or high blood pressure.

  • Pre-high blood pressure (prehypertension) is between 120/80 and 139/89.
  • Stage 1 high blood pressure ranges from 140/90 to 159/99.
  • Stage 2 high blood pressure is over 160/100.

Blood pressure readings that are greater than 140 systolic or 90 diastolic are considered high blood pressure (hypertension) in most older adults. However, some older adults need a systolic blood pressure between 140 and 160 to avoid the serious problems caused by blood pressure that is too low or drops suddenly when they stand or try to walk. The decision about what blood pressure is right for you can be made only after talking with your healthcare provider.

The higher your blood pressure, the greater your risk of having a stroke and other serious medical problems.

You can do the following things to help keep your blood pressure under control:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight. Avoid being overweight.
  • Follow the DASH diet. This diet is low in fat, cholesterol, red meat, and sweets. It is rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods. The DASH diet also includes whole-grain products (such as whole wheat and oatmeal), fish, poultry, and nuts. (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.)
  • Use less salt. Check the levels of sodium listed on food labels. Avoid canned and prepared foods, such as soups, dinner mixes to which you just add the meat or cheese, chips, and crackers, unless the label says no salt is added.
  • Include regular physical activity in your schedule, after checking with your healthcare provider. If you have physical limitations, ask your provider about ways you can still get some exercise.
  • If you are a woman, do not have more than 1 drink of alcohol a day. Men should not have more than 2 drinks a day. (Alcohol raises your blood pressure.)
  • Try to reduce the amount of stress in your life, or learn techniques to help you relax and cope with stress better.
  • If you take medicine for high blood pressure, always follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Don't take less medicine or stop taking medicine without talking to your provider first. It can be dangerous to suddenly stop taking blood pressure medicine. Also, do not increase the dosage of any medicine without first talking with your provider. If you are having problems paying for your medicines, let your healthcare provider know. There may be some way to get help paying for them.

If your blood pressure is normal, check it once a year. If it's above normal, follow the schedule for checkups recommended by your healthcare provider.

Developed by Phyllis G. Cooper, RN, MN, and RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-05-09
Last reviewed: 2010-08-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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