Blood Pressure –Here’s What You Need to Know

December 3, 2018

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Brett Sealove, M.D., FACC, RPVI contributes to topics such as Cardiac/Heart Health.

Lucy Michelle Safi, D.O. contributes to topics such as Cardiac / Heart Health.

One in three, or about 75 million American adults, have high blood pressure. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can put you at risk for heart disease and stroke, both of which are leading causes of death in the U.S.

So how do you know if you have high blood pressure? To understand your risk, it helps to first understand the basics:

  • What is blood pressure a measure of?
  • How is blood pressure measured, and what factors influence its reading?
  • What can you do to maintain a healthy blood pressure?

We recently spoke with Brett Sealove, M.D., FACC, RPVI, a cardiologist affiliated with Jersey Shore University Medical Center and Lucy Safi, D.O. a cardiologist with Hackensack University Medical Center, to help break down the basics of blood pressure.

What is blood pressure a measure of?

The circulatory system is made up of the heart and blood vessels that carry blood throughout the body. Your heart is the pump for this system, and with each heartbeat (contraction), the heart sends blood out through large blood vessels called arteries.

“Blood pressure measures how difficult or easy it is for your heart to circulate blood throughout your body. It’s measuring the pressure in your arterial system – this is the pressure that blood exerts on the inside walls of your blood vessels,” says Dr. Sealove. “If your blood pressure is high, the vessels may be narrow or restricted, meaning your heart has to work harder to circulate blood. As your blood pressure increases, your heart has to work harder and harder every beat.”

How is blood pressure measured, and what do each of the numbers mean?

Before readings are obtained, I recommend that you are at rest and relaxed for about 10 minutes,” says Dr. Safi. “Blood pressure is measured with a cuff around the arm that has a gauge,” she adds, “As the cuff is slowly deflated the ‘systolic’ and ‘diastolic’ blood pressures are noted. The systolic blood pressure is the ‘top number’ and refers to the force of blood against the walls of the blood vessels, this is when the heart contracts. The diastolic blood pressure is the ‘bottom number’ and refers to the pressure in the circulatory system in between heart beats – this is the pressure in between heart beats when the heart is relaxed.”

What does it mean to have high blood pressure, and what are the health risks?

“Untreated hypertension can lead to strain of the cardiovascular system, neurological system as well as to the kidneys. This can lead to heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease and even blindness,” says Dr. Safi.

Why is high blood pressure often referred to as the silent killer?

“High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because there aren’t many visible signs, and it can often go undiagnosed. This is why hypertension can be so dangerous,” says Dr. Sealove. “For every 20 points higher on the systolic reading or 10 points higher on the diastolic reading, each are associated with doubling the risk of death from heart disease or stroke.”

What are ways to maintain a healthy blood pressure?

“The best-proven nonmedical treatment for hypertension includes: weight loss, a healthy diet, and reduced intake of dietary sodium,” shares Dr. Safi. “Routine aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day for three times a week is recommended for overall cardiovascular health.”

Certain foods, such as lunchmeats, and pre-prepared foods like frozen meals or canned soups, can have an unexpected amount of sodium. Dr. Safi recommends that you read the labels and nutritional information.

Certain medications such as birth control, decongestants, steroids and anti-inflammatory medications (NSAISDs) may increase your blood pressure, so it is important to discuss this with your doctor before taking any new medications.

“Hypertension can be tough to manage. For example, if you have a toothache, you go to the dentist, or you have blurry vision, you will visit an optometrist. The problem with hypertension is that you may not even know you are at risk,” says Dr. Sealove. “Then if you are diagnosed, compliance can be challenging because you may not have symptoms from the high blood pressure, but the medications can have side effects, and changing your lifestyle can be challenging.

“Your health starts with your lifestyle,” he adds “As much as pills will lower your blood pressure, physical activity and weight loss are key. Even if you feel well, having high blood pressure greatly puts you at risk. So don’t negate the fact that blood pressure is a vital sign, it’s an imperative indicator of how your body is functioning, it is vitally important!”

To learn more about heart health or to make an appointment with one of our cardiologists, visit HackensackMeridianHealth.org/Cardiovascular. To find free blood pressure screenings at an event near you, check out our online calendar.

The material provided through Health Hub is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

Resources:
CDC – Blood Pressure Fact Sheet
American Heart Association – Health Threats from High Blood Pressure
American Heart Association – Managing High Blood Pressure Medications