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.
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.
"Blood pressure guidelines are not updated at regular intervals. Instead, they are changed when sufficient new evidence suggests the old ones weren't accurate or relevant anymore," says Dr. Paul Conlin, an endocrinologist with Harvard-affiliated VA Boston Healthcare System and Brigham and Women's Hospital. "The goal now with the new guidelines is to help people address high blood pressure — and the problems that may accompany it like heart attack and stroke — much earlier."
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Blood pressure readings fall into four general categories, ranging from normal to stage 2 high blood pressure (hypertension). The level of your blood pressure determines what kind of treatment you may need. To get an accurate blood pressure measurement, your doctor should evaluate your readings based on the average of two or more blood pressure readings at three or more office visits.
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.