When your heart contracts and squeezes blood out into your network of arteries, the pressure inside those blood vessels is at its highest. This is called systolic pressure and it’s the top number on your blood pressure reading. In between beats, the heart relaxes and the pressure drops. This is your diastolic blood pressure, and it’s the reading’s bottom number.
Last year, new guidelines from the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and nine other health organizations lowered the numbers for the diagnosis of hypertension (high blood pressure) to 130/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) and higher for all adults. The previous guidelines set the threshold at 140/90 mm Hg for people younger than age 65 and 150/80 mm Hg for those ages 65 and older.
If your blood pressure remains high for a long period of time, you run the risk of damaging your blood vessels. Your stroke risk rises significantly, too. And because your heart is working harder to push blood through your system, that very valuable muscle can become overworked and grow thicker. An enlarged heart causes further complications, including heart failure. Medications and special implantable pumps can help boost heart function. But if you can manage your blood pressure before it gets too high and puts your heart at risk, you may be able to avoid a lot of complications down the road.
If your blood pressure readings are consistently high, you and your doctor will probably discuss treatment strategies. Treatment for high blood pressure often begins with lifestyle changes such as a weight loss and exercise program as well as a low sodium diet. In fact, the AHA recommends adopting these strategies as a means of preventing the development of high blood pressure and heart disease. If these strategies are not successful in lowering your blood pressure, medications may be recommended.
If you had previously been diagnosed with high blood pressure, the new guidelines don't affect you too much, says Dr. Conlin, as you still need to continue your efforts to lower it through medication, diet, exercise, and weight loss. "However, based on new information in the guidelines, your doctor may propose treating your blood pressure to a lower level," he says. A nurse takes your blood pressure at your annual physical. The numbers are recorded and the checkup continues. But do you know where on the blood pressure chart your levels are? Are they healthy? Too low? Too high, meaning you have hypertension? If you have high blood pressure or are heading in that direction, you should know that hypertension is among the primary enlarged heart causes, and a major risk factor for heart failure.