You’ve probably had your blood pressure checked countless times. It’s a routine part of health care. Even your dentist might check your blood pressure. Maybe you’ve had normal blood pressure readings all along. Until one day, you don’t.
A single high blood pressure reading could be an isolated event. But you should have it rechecked. If it’s high more than three times in a week, you should talk to your doctor about ways to manage it.
While you might not expect to have high blood pressure (hypertension), it’s a common condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it affects almost half of all adults in the U.S. Here’s what you should know about high blood pressure.
What is high blood pressure?
“Your blood pressure is the force your blood exerts against the walls of your blood vessels,” said Philip Gideon, MD, a cardiologist at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. It’s measured with two numbers, the systolic number (top number) first and the diastolic number (bottom number) second. The systolic blood pressure number measures the pressure when the heart pumps. The diastolic blood pressure number measures the pressure when the heart rests between beats.
Here’s how the American Heart Association defines high blood pressure or hypertension:
- below 120 (systolic pressure) and below 80 mm Hg (diastolic pressure) mmHg: normal
- 120 to 129 and below 80 mm Hg: elevated blood pressure
- 130 to 139 and 80 to 89 mm Hg: stage 1 hypertension
- 140 or more and 90 mm Hg or more: stage 2 hypertension
- 180 or more and 120 mm Hg or higher: an emergency. You should go to the emergency room
You might think that you would notice something or feel differently if you had high blood pressure. But people with high blood pressure generally don’t notice any symptoms—that’s why screening is so important.
What are the health risks of high blood pressure?
According to Dr. Gideon, high blood pressure puts you at risk of developing a range of dangerous long-term health conditions. They include:
- Heart disease, heart attack, heart failure
- Kidney disease/failure
- Visual loss
- Memory loss or dementia
- Metabolic syndrome
How do I lower my blood pressure?
If you have high blood pressure, you’ll want to get it back into the normal range. Depending on how high your blood pressure is, lifestyle changes, medication or both can help move your numbers in the right direction.
To start, you’ll want to measure your blood pressure regularly, so you know what your average reading is. “Taking your blood pressure at home can confirm your diagnosis and help guide your lifestyle changes,” Dr. Gideon said. If your doctor prescribes medication to help manage your high blood pressure, monitoring regularly can also help gauge how well your medications are working.
Lifestyle changes can help reduce blood pressure
How can you prevent high blood pressure? Here are some healthy lifestyle changes you can try to reduce your blood pressure at home:
- Modify your diet with a focus on nutrition and a healthy body weight. Try to lose weight if you need to since weight loss can help improve your blood pressure.
- Consider following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan to help control your blood pressure. It emphasizes vegetables, fruits and whole grains. It also includes fat-free or low-fat dairy, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oil and other foods in limited amounts.
- Avoid processed foods and fast foods, which are typically high in sodium. Too much sodium intake can raise blood pressure.
- Reduce your caffeine intake.
- Try to get at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week. (Talk to your doctor first about your exercise plans.)
- Steer clear of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. If you do drink, the guidelines for healthy adults are no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one drink a day for women.
- Manage your stress.
- Make sure you get enough sleep.
“The most important factor in making lifestyle changes is consistency,” Dr. Gideon said.
Medication can help lower blood pressure
Your doctor may recommend medication in addition to lifestyle changes as part of your treatment plan for high blood pressure. There are different types of medications for high blood pressure. You may need to try different ones or use two or more in combination, especially if you experience side effects. And the age to start blood pressure medication varies. Your doctor may suggest medication even for elevated blood pressure if you’re 60 or older.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), these common classes of blood pressure medications can help lower your blood pressure:
- Diuretics: help rid the body of excess sodium and water.
- Beta-blockers: help reduce your heart rate, its workload and its output of blood.
- ACE (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme) inhibitors: help your blood vessels relax and open.
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers: help keep your blood vessels open.
- Calcium channel blockers: block calcium from entering the smooth muscle cells of the heart and arteries, so your heart doesn’t contract too forcefully.
- Alpha-blockers: reduce resistance in your arteries and relax the muscle tone of the vascular walls.
- Alpha-2 receptor agonists: decrease the sympathetic nervous system activity and present fewer risk factors for pregnant women.
- Combined alpha and beta-blockers: delivered via IV drip for people in hypertensive crisis or at risk of heart failure.
- Central agonists: help prevent blood vessels from tensing up or contracting.
- Peripheral adrenergic inhibitors: help block the neurotransmitters to the brain that tell the smooth muscles to constrict. They are typically only used if other medications are not helping.
- Blood vessel dilators: help blood flow better by causing the walls of blood vessels to relax and allowing the vessels to widen.
The bottom line
Seeing a high blood pressure reading for the first time can be scary but talking to your doctor can help you prevent serious health problems. To connect with a health care professional, reach out to Banner Health.
To learn more about your heart health and potential risk for cardiovascular disease, take our free risk assessment.