Blood Pressure blog photoWe have all had our blood pressure taken at a regular doctor visit; however most of us don’t truly understand why those numbers are so important. Having high blood pressure is a big health concern, but what does it all really mean?

What is blood pressure?

In the most basic terms, when your heart beats, it pumps blood throughout your body, supplying it with the oxygen and energy it needs. As your blood moves, it pushes against the sides of your blood vessels. The strength of this pushing is what is known as blood pressure.

When you have your blood pressure reading it consists of two numbers, presented as one number over the other, like a fraction. The first or top number is your systolic blood pressure. This is the amount of pressure in your arteries during the contraction of your heart muscle. The second or bottom number is your diastolic blood pressure. This is the lowest level your blood pressure reaches as your heart relaxes between beats.  The numeric difference between your systolic and diastolic blood pressure is called your pulse pressure. For example, the pulse pressure reading for a person whose blood pressure is 120/80, would be 40. Along with blood pressure, pulse pressure can also provide insight into your heart health. In some cases a low pulse pressure (less than 40) may indicate poor heart function, while a higher pulse pressure (greater than 60) may reflect leaky heart valves, often as a result of age-related losses in aortic elasticity.

What is a healthy blood pressure?

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), for a blood pressure reading to be considered normal, the top number/systolic pressure should be between 90 and 120 and the bottom number/diastolic pressure should be between 60 and 80.  If your blood pressure numbers exceed this range, it may indicate that your heart is working too hard to circulate blood throughout your body.

High blood pressure or hypertension can lead to various health complications such as heart attack and stroke. This is why maintaining a healthy blood pressure is so important to your overall health. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, healthy weight and exercising regularly are all important contributors in preventing hypertension. You may also need to be more mindful of your lifestyle if high blood pressure runs in your family.

“We often times refer to hypertension as the ‘silent killer’ because many patients may have very high blood pressure and not even know it,” said David Shenouda, DO, cardiologist.

The only way to determine if you truly have hypertension is to have your doctor track your blood pressure readings over time. Having one high reading may not mean you have high blood pressure. What determines a diagnosis of hypertension is if your numbers remain high over a period of time. If you have a high reading, your doctor may suggest you make some healthy lifestyle changes including diet and exercise.

“Having high blood pressure will increase the risk of stroke, heart attack and congestive heart failure, all of which can be debilitating, if not fatal. While weight loss, healthy diet and good lifestyle choices may prevent or reduce high blood pressure, often times medications are needed. Blood pressure medications should be tailored to the individual patient and be incorporated along with the appropriate lifestyle modifications,” Shenouda said.

What if my blood pressure is below the normal range?

Having a low blood pressure reading is often considered an advantage as it reduces your risk of hypertension. However, having severely low blood pressure comes with its own sets of risks and can indicate other underlying health issues. Low blood pressure or hypotension is classified as blood pressure readings of 90/60 or lower. Having a blood pressure that is too low may indicate that your body and heart are not being supplied with enough oxygenated. This can be dangerous as it can cause dizziness, weakness and fainting which can lead to injury from falls, and in severe cases, hypotension can be life-threatening, leading to damage of your heart and brain. The causes of low blood pressure can range from dehydration and malnutrition to serious medical disorders including heart problems, severe infection, anaphylaxis, or as a result of certain medications you may be taking, among others. If you have low blood pressure it is important to see your doctor to find out what is causing your hypotension so that it can be treated.