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.
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:
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.