Understanding Blood Pressure

Understanding Blood Pressure

From the Hilbert College Wellness Center
By Kirsten Falcone, RN

Whenever you go to the doctor for a physical, someone routinely takes your blood pressure. But do you understand what the numbers mean?

There are two numbers used in recording blood pressure. Systolic blood pressure is the pressure at which blood is propelled through the arteries when your heart beats or contracts. Diastolic is measured between beats when the heart is at rest. A normal blood pressure, then, is when the systolic pressure is less than 120 and the diastolic reading is less than 80 (119/79 or below). Prehypertensive blood pressure is slightly elevated but not yet hypertensive or emergent. A prehypertensive reading is between 120 and 139 systolic and 80-89 diastolic. If someone has a prehypertensive reading, that is considered a warning sign to begin making lifestyle changes. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is defined as a blood pressure reading of 140/90 or above. In addition, only one of these numbers needs to be elevated in order to be considered “high.”

Why is it so important to control your blood pressure? Blood that is moving too quickly through your arteries can be compared to using a garden hose instead of a fire hose. Eventually—probably sooner than later—that “garden hose” is going to wear out or break. Like a garden hose, arteries can transport only a certain speed and volume of liquid.

Some causes of high blood pressure include a poor diet, not enough exercise, stress, medication (including, but not limited to, Ibuprofen, decongestants, migraine medications, birth control pills, and even some herbal supplements), smoking, drinking alcohol, being overweight, a family history, and older age.

Not as common, but of concern, is low blood pressure, or hypotension. Hypotension is when your blood pressure reading is below 90/60. This is of concern mostly for elderly people because of the possibility of not getting enough blood to the brain, heart and other organs. Young people with low blood pressure don’t usually need to be concerned. It’s when blood pressure drops suddenly that an emergent situation may exist, like blood loss, change in body temperature, or severe dehydration. Other factors that may cause low blood pressure include (again) some medications, pregnancy, heat exhaustion, liver disease, hypothyroidism, diabetes or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

The best way to control one’s blood pressure is to make key lifestyle changes. Eat a healthful diet, increase aerobic exercise, reduce stress, get enough sleep, be medication aware, stop smoking, decrease alcohol consumption, lose extra weight, and educate yourself on your family health history. That way as you grow older, you likely will enjoy good health.

For more information, see these sources:

American Heart Association:

Medline Plus:


FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration:






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