What is Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. Your heart pumps blood into your arteries every time it beats. Your blood pressure reading is made up of systolic pressure and diastolic pressure.

  • During the beat, the pressure is the highest, this is known as systolic pressure.
  • Between the beats, your heart is at rest, the pressure falls and is known as diastolic pressure.

The table below explains what a normal blood pressure should be and what numbers put you at risk for developing heart disease.

Systolic Pressure (Top Number) Diastolic Number (Bottom Number)
Normal Blood Pressure Less than 120 and Less than 80
Pre-hypertension 120-139 or 80-90
Hypertension 140 or higher or 90 or higher

What causes your blood pressure to go up and down?

Your blood pressure naturally goes up and down during the day. Doing physical activity or being very stressed can cause your blood pressure to rise. If your blood pressure stays high for long periods of time this can be dangerous.

Who is at risk for high blood pressure?

Some people are at higher risk for developing high blood pressure than the average American adult. People who are at higher risk include:

  • Those who have a close blood relative with high blood pressure
  • Adults over the age of 35
  • Overweight people
  • People who are physically inactive
  • Those who eat too much salt
  • Those who drink too much alcohol
  • African-Americans
  • People with diabetes, kidney disease, or gout
  • Women who are pregnant

Women who take birth control pills who are also overweight, had high blood pressure while they were pregnant, have a family history of high blood pressure, OR have mild kidney disease

What are the signs and symptoms of high blood pressure?

There are usually no warning signs or symptoms that you have high blood pressure. It is often called the silent killer because unless you have your blood pressure checked on a regular basis you usually have no way of knowing that it's high.

How can I lower my high blood pressure?

Having high blood pressure can lead to heart disease and stroke. It is very important for you to see your doctor on a regular basis. Your doctor will check your blood pressure on a regular basis, and may want you to check on your own at home too. Your doctor may prescribe a blood pressure lowering medication for you. It is very important that you take this medicine as prescribed.

Making some healthy lifestyle changes is also a great way to help lower your blood pressure. For more information on classes available to help you make these healthy lifestyle changes please visit our Total Wellness page. You can also:

  • Follow a healthy diet. Try and lower the amount of salt and fat that you eat every day. For more information on nutrition and heart disease, please see our Nutrition section.
  • Lose weight. It is estimated that obese people are twice as likely to have high blood pressure and people who are a normal weight. Any reduction in your weight can help lower your blood pressure and other risk factors.
  • Be physically active. The CDC recommends that adults get a minimum of 2½ hours of physical activity, like brisk walking, each week. They also recommend that you do muscle building exercise at least twice a week.
  • Quit smoking. While you are smoking a cigarette your blood pressure does not rise, but cigarette smoke causes damage to the blood vessels in your body causing them to harden. One year after quitting smoking you will already have a lower risk of developing heart disease. For more information on quitting smoking, please visit our Tobacco Use Prevention section.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Heavy drinking will have an immediate impact on your blood pressure. Having too much to drink over a long period of time puts you at risk for developing heart disease. For more information on alcohol and blood pressure, please visit the CDC's Alcohol section.
  • Manage your diabetes. People living with Diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease. Keeping your diabetes under control can help lower your risk for developing high blood pressure. For more information on diabetes and heart disease, please visit the American Diabetes Association's Hypertension section.

Why is it important to treat high blood pressure?

Untreated high blood pressure can lead to many health problems. High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of heart disease in the United States. High blood pressure can also lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney failure and many other conditions.

Facts and Statistics

Approximately 68 million adults in the United States have high blood pressure. That is:

  • 1 in 3 adults has high blood pressure.
  • 1 in 3 adults with high blood pressure does not get treatment.
  • 1 in 2 adults with high blood pressure does not have it under control.

25% of adults in the United States have pre-hypertension. Pre-hypertension is when your blood pressure is above normal but not high enough to be classified as high blood pressure. According to the CDC more than 1 in 5 people with high blood pressure do not know they have it. African-Americans are at highest risk for developing high blood pressure.

Race of Ethnic Group Men(%) Women (%)
African Americans 42.2 44.1
Mexican Americans 24.8 28.6
Whites 31.2 28.3
All 31.8 30.3

For more information about why African Americans are at greater risk for developing heart disease, please see this fact sheet from the American Heart Association.