Most of us are familiar enough with blood pressure readings to know that there are two numbers; the higher one is given first, "over" the lower number, like a fraction. But do you know what the numbers refer to?
Briefly, blood pressure is a measure of the force that your blood exerts against your blood-vessel walls. The higher number in the reading is called the systolic pressure -- the pressure of the blood against the walls when the heart pumps. The lower number is the diastolic pressure -- the pressure of the blood between the heart's beats.
The more resistance there is to smooth blood flow, the higher the numbers (and the higher the blood pressure) will be. If your arteries are clogged with plaque, your heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout your body; there will be more resistance to the blood flow, hence a higher blood pressure. And that's not good. It can lead to a dangerously enlarged heart.
The extra pressure on the blood-vessel walls can weaken them, too, making them susceptible to further injury. Blood flow to the body's organs may be slowed, as well, possibly leading to kidney disease, stroke, heart attack, or other life-threatening damage.
So what should your blood-pressure numbers be to avoid all that? In general, it's best if your systolic (upper) number is below 120 and your diastolic (lower) is below 80. There's a gray area of uncertain risk, sometimes referred to as "prehypertension," but scientists have agreed on certain cutoff points above which definite danger lurks.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) classifies blood pressure by systolic and diastolic levels to help doctors determine the best course of treatment (see How to Read Your Blood Pressure sidebar).
Previously, doctors paid more attention to diastolic pressure, believing it to be a better indicator of potential trouble. Now, however, the recommendation is to give equal concern to both numbers (and ironically now the systolic number is actually thought to better predict the complications that arise from hypertension). For people who are diagnosed with hypertension, the aim is to reduce blood pressure below 140 over 90 and to less than 130 over 80 for people who also have diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Dietary changes can help prevent or lower your blood pressure. We will explore those changes in the next section, including how to incorporate the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension plan into your daily routine.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.