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Blood pressure: know your numbers and what they mean

Certain ranges are your cue to seek treatment

With the rise in obesity and the sedentary lifestyle, hypertension – or high blood pressure – has become a growing health concern in the U.S. and around the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in three U.S. adults – an estimated 68 million people – have high blood pressure.

Left unchecked it can lead to heart attack and stroke. It can be dangerous, in part, because there are almost no symptoms. It's called the “silent killer” because many people aren't aware they have it until they find themselves in the emergency room.

That's why you should check your blood pressure regularly, know your numbers and, more importantly, know what those numbers mean.

Blood pressure is measured with a cuff that is filled with air, creating pressure around your arm, and slowly released. As the pressure falls, the pressure against your artery wall is measured.

120/80 is normal and healthy

Blood pressure readings are given as two numbers, like 120 over 80 and often written as 120/80. That reading, in fact, is normal and healthy. When one or both numbers are too high, it's an unhealthy situation.

The first, and larger number is called the systolic blood pressure. That's a measure of the force of the blood in your veins when your heart beats. The second and lower number is called the diastolic blood pressure. That's a measure of the pressure in your veins and arteries between heart beats.

While 120/80 and below is healthy, what are the higher numbers that should be cause for concern? If your reading is 135/86, it means you should probably keep an eye on your blood pressure, checking it regularly and making appropriate heart-healthy lifestyle changes.

A reading of 140/90 was once considered normal. Today, physicians consider it “high normal” and a point at which you should discuss your blood pressure with your doctor. A reading above that level – 145/93 for example – is considered stage one hypertension and most likely requires treatment.

Cause for concern

If your blood pressure is routinely 160/100 or above, that's considered moderate stage two hypertension, according to the American Heart Association. Besides medication, a doctor may prescribe exercise and a strict diet. A blood pressure reading of 180/110 and above is getting into dangerous territory. That's severe stage 3 hypertension. A reading of 210/130 and above is scary indeed and may be a sign that you should seek immediate medical aid.

Remember that a single high reading does not necessarily mean you are suffering from hypertension. Exercise, stress, caffeine and tobacco will cause higher readings. Waiting until you are calm and relaxed is the best way to ensure an accurate reading.

If you take your blood pressure and it seems abnormally high, wait a few minutes and take it again. Doctors usually recommend taking two or three measurements, one minute apart, to see if the readings are consistent.

Don't just rely on medication

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic say hypertension is one of the more treatable conditions people face, but patients should not rely on medication alone. Rather, they suggest changes in lifestyle.

Maintaining a healthy weight can be a helpful step, though there is no direct link between high blood pressure and carrying too many pounds.

Cardiovascular exercise is another important way to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Cardiovascular exercise will strengthen your heart. A strong heart exerts less force on arteries.

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