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High blood pressure works the heart harder and causes arteries to become less flexible. Sustained high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure. It can also directly cause those events.

Understanding Your Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force exerted on the artery walls by the blood. The force is highest when the heart pumps the blood out of the left ventricle. This is called the systolic blood pressure. As the heart relaxes and refills with blood, the pressure in the arteries drops. This is the diastolic pressure. Your blood pressure is recorded as two numbers, written as systolic/diastolic.

Because blood pressure changes constantly due to internal and external factors, it should be checked while you are sitting quietly. A single elevated blood pressure reading does not mean you have hypertension (high blood pressure), which requires several elevated readings to diagnose. Elevated blood pressure should be discussed with your doctor. Immediately report a reading falling in Stage 3 or 4 (see chart below).

Risk Factors

Men, overweight individuals, and those with a family history of hypertension are more likely to have high blood pressure. People of African-American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Filipino, or Hispanic descent are also at higher risk. Other risk factors include aging, smoking, sodium sensitivity, alcohol usage, oral contraceptive use, and physical inactivity.

What You Can Do

To control blood pressure:

  • Maintain normal weight
  • Exercise routinely
  • Practice stress reduction techniques
  • Reduce salt intake and increase dietary intake of potassium, magnesium, and calcium
  • Limit stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and some over-the-counter cold medicines and weight loss products
  • Stop smoking
  • Limit alcohol to moderate amounts
  • If blood pressure medication is needed, take it as prescribed and follow up with your doctor

Blood Pressure Chart

Category Systolic
Normal < 120 < 80
Pre–hypertension 120-139 80-89
STAGE 1 (Mild) 140-159 90-99
STAGE 2 (Moderate) 160-179 100-109
STAGE 3 (Severe) 180-209 110-119
STAGE 4 (Very Severe) > 210 > 120