High blood pressure is often called ‘the silent killer’ because it can go unnoticed, without symptoms, until a frightening and often deadly first symptom happens. The symptoms can range from extreme headaches and shortness of breath, to stroke, heart attack or kidney disease. Besides threatening your heart and kidneys, high blood pressure affects all the blood vessels in your body, including the small ones in your eyes and brain. This can lead to vision loss and dementia.
You can check your blood pressure conveniently, in public places at automated machines or have a health professional check it at health fairs. However, your doctor will check your blood pressure as a standard part of an annual physical and that is a good time to have a conversation about how your blood pressure measures up.
How high is too high?
There are two numbers in a blood pressure reading. The top number is the pressure when your heart beats and pushes blood into your arteries. It is your systolic pressure. The bottom number is the pressure when the heart is at rest between beats. It is your diastolic pressure.
The American Heart Association divides blood pressure into four general categories. Ideal blood pressure is categorized as normal.
- Normal blood pressure. Blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg or lower.
- Elevated blood pressure. The top number ranges from 120 to 129 mm Hg and the bottom number is below, not above, 80 mm Hg.
- Stage 1 hypertension. The top number ranges from 130 to 139 mm Hg or the bottom number is between 80 and 89 mm Hg.
- Stage 2 hypertension. The top number is 140 mm Hg or higher or the bottom number is 90 mm Hg or higher.
Blood pressure higher than 180/120 mm Hg is considered a hypertensive emergency or crisis. Seek emergency medical help for yourself or anyone with these blood pressure numbers.
What makes blood pressure high?
Often, your age, race and family history affect your high blood pressure. However, most of the strongest risk factors for high blood pressure are things you can help control. They are some of the same things that affect your general health.
- Overweight or obesity
- Lack of exercise
- Use of tobacco products (smoking, vaping or chewing tobacco)
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Eating a high-salt diet
- Chronic health conditions like diabetes, kidney disease or sleep apnea
- Sometimes pregnancy can lead to high blood pressure
If high, your doctor may prescribe medications to lower your blood pressure and ask you to monitor it at home. High blood pressure is a serious health issue. Learn your blood pressure numbers and if elevated, ask your doctor what you can do to lower them.