With every heartbeat, blood rushes through your body. It pushes against your artery walls. You can't feel this force, even if it's higher than it should be. That's why many people don't know they have hypertension, or high blood pressure.
Every year, the American Heart Association releases updated statistics on heart disease, stroke, and related diseases. This year's report noted that 33% of American adults have high blood pressure. That's more than 78 million people nationwide.
By 2030, more than 40% of the population may have high blood pressure. Even more alarming: Up to a quarter of people may not know they have this health problem. A silent disease, high blood pressure rarely causes any symptoms. But the damage from high blood pressure can happen throughout the body. It ultimately raises your risk for heart disease and stroke.
No matter your age, race, or sex, you can develop high blood pressure. But it's most prevalent in those older than age 60, especially women. Another high-risk group: African-Americans. In one study of more than 69,000 people with hypertension, nearly 7 out of 10 adults were of that ethnic group. Being overweight or obese was another prevailing factor.
Blood pressure is calculated in millimeters of mercury, or mm Hg. It includes 2 numbers. The top one is called systolic pressure; it's the amount of pressure that happens when your heart contracts to push blood out to your body. Diastolic pressure—the bottom number—measures the force of blood when your heart is relaxed, or between beats.
Your doctor can determine your blood pressure using a cuff placed around your upper arm. He or she pumps the cuff up with air and then listens to your pulse as the air exits. A normal blood pressure range is less than 120/80 mm Hg. You have prehypertension if the top number falls between 120 and 139 or the bottom number is between 80 and 89.
For most adults, high blood pressure is diagnosed when your reading consistently stays at 140/90 or above over several different readings. A recent review of nearly 50 years of scientific data, though, concluded a higher number may be fine for adults older than age 60. They should strive for a reading of 150/90 or below. Why? Blood pressure tends to naturally rise with age.
With regular readings, you can monitor your blood pressure. If you develop hypertension, lifestyle strategies—such as exercising and reducing sodium in your diet—can help keep it under control. Your doctor may also prescribe medication.
Discover all the ways you can keep your blood pressure in a healthy range.
Your blood pressure can fluctuate throughout the day. It tends to drop while you sleep and rise when you wake up. It may also spike when you are nervous or stressed. Such changes can skew your blood pressure reading. For an accurate assessment, follow these steps when you have your blood pressure checked:
Relax for at least 5 minutes before the test. Sit down in a chair and place your feet on the floor.
Go to the bathroom beforehand, if needed.
Avoid smoking, vigorous activity, and caffeine at least 30 minutes in advance.
Don’t talk during the test.