Typically, more attention is given to systolic blood pressure (the first number) as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over 50. In most people, systolic blood pressure rises steadily with age due to the increasing stiffness of large arteries, long-term buildup of plaque and an increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease.
Imagine a garden hose hooked up to a spigot. When the hose is flexible and there are no kinks in it, you can turn on the water full blast and it will flow easily through the hose. But if there’s a kink in the hose, the water doesn’t flow as well beyond the kink. And the pressure inside the hose builds up behind the kink. Or imagine there is gunk inside the hose blocking the path of the water. Your arteries are a lot like that garden hose.
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.
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.
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.
The guidelines also redefined the various categories of hypertension. It eliminated the category of prehypertension, which had been defined as systolic blood pressure of 120 to 139 mm Hg or diastolic pressure (the lower number in a reading) of 80 to 89 mm Hg. Instead, people with those readings are now categorized as having either elevated pressure (120 to 129 systolic and less than 80 diastolic) or Stage 1 hypertension (130 to 139 systolic or 80 to 89 diastolic).
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Your total blood pressure reading is determined by measuring your systolic and diastolic blood pressures. Systolic blood pressure, the top number, measures the force your heart exerts on the walls of your arteries each time it beats. Diastolic blood pressure, the bottom number, measures the force your heart exerts on the walls of your arteries in between beats.