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.
"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."
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.
She'll inflate the cuff to a pressure higher than your systolic blood pressure, and it will tighten around your arm. Then she'll release it. As the cuff deflates, the first sound she hears through the stethoscope is the systolic blood pressure. It sounds like a whooshing noise. The point where this noise goes away marks the diastolic blood pressure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The new guidelines stem from the 2017 results of the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT), which studied more than 9,000 adults ages 50 and older who had systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) of 130 mm Hg or higher and at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The study's aim was to find out whether treating blood pressure to lower the systolic number to 120 mm Hg or less was superior to the standard target of 140 mm Hg or less. The results found that targeting a systolic pressure of no more than 120 mm Hg reduced the chance of heart attacks, heart failure, or stroke over a three-year period.