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Understanding Blood Pressure

We all know the deal with getting our blood pressure checked. The nurse slaps on the cuff, pumps it up, and reads you the numbers - but do you know what those numbers mean? Pay attention next time to get an idea of what your blood pressure reading may be telling you. Read on to understand blood pressure numbers, causes and risk factors of high blood pressure, and the hype about hypertension.

Know Your Numbers

Blood pressure readings come with two numbers: systolic (first) and diastolic (second). The systolic number tells you the pressure while the heart is beating, and the diastolic number represents the pressure when the heart is resting between beats. So, a blood pressure reading of 140/90 means that the systolic number is 140, and the diastolic number is 90.

Here are some ranges to give you an idea of where you stand:

  • Normal: Less than 120/80
  • Prehypertension: 120-139/80-89
  • Stage 1 High Blood Pressure: 140-159/90-99
  • Stage 2 High Blood Pressure: 160 and above/100 and above

Why High Blood Pressure?

The heart pumps blood into the arteries to carry blood throughout the body. Testing your blood pressure measures the force of all that blood traveling through the arteries. When these arteries become narrow, blood pressure increases. Almost everyone experiences high blood pressure at some point, even though it takes many years to develop. If left uncontrolled, high blood pressure increases the risk of some serious stuff - heart attacks, strokes, and stress on major organs.

The cause of high blood pressure isn't pinned down, but here are some things to avoid to keep your numbers in check:

  • Smoking
  • More than 1-2 alcoholic drinks per day
  • Stress
  • Too much salt
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Being overweight or obese

Some risk factors you can't control include:

  • Genetics
  • Family history
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Adrenal and thyroid disorders
  • Old age

Hypertension

High blood pressure equals hypertension. Read about the two types of hypertension to learn more.

Essential Hypertension

When the cause of high blood pressure can't be identified, it is called essential hypertension. This can be an unsatisfying diagnosis - if you don't know the cause, how can you fix it? Many times, essential hypertension is linked to risk factors such as age, race, and genetics. This type of hypertension is also affected by the lifestyle choices mentioned above.

Secondary Hypertension

When there is a linked cause for high blood pressure, this is known as secondary hypertension. Kidney disease is a common culprit for a secondary diagnosis, but it can be brought on by abnormalities like tumors; this can cause adrenal glands to give off hormones that elevate blood pressure. Estrogen birth control pills and pregnancy can also bump up blood pressure readings.

Whatever your blood pressure may be, it's important to understand what the numbers mean and to track changes as you get older. We are all at risk, so maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the first step to keeping your numbers under control. So, next time you see the nurse grab that cuff, don't be baffled by the reading - get ready to remember your numbers and see where you stand.

The Chester County Hospital offers FREE Blood Pressure Screenings at various locations throughout the month. Visit us online for a schedule and locations.

Last Updated: 2/26/2013