Blood Pressure

High blood pressure increases the risk of having a stroke. This module will help you understand what high blood pressure is, why it matters, and what you can do to help keep it in a healthy range.

Woman measuring blood pressure

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Why is blood pressure important?

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a common condition and the biggest risk factor for stroke. Many people don’t know they have hypertension because it usually doesn’t cause obvious symptoms. This is why it is important to know your numbers and get your blood pressure checked regularly (American Heart Association, 2017)

Know your numbers

Understanding your blood pressure numbers is one of the most important things you can do for your health. A blood pressure is made up of two numbers: the top number (also known as systolic) and the bottom number (also known as diastolic). The top number reflects how much pressure your blood is putting on your blood vessels when your heart beats.  The bottom number reflects how much pressure your blood is putting on your blood vessels when your heart is resting between beats. 

Blood pressure numbers are usually reported together like this: 120/80. Both numbers are important indicators of your heart health.

Healthy blood pressure numbers: 

The top number (systolic): Ideally less than 120
  Systolic higher than 130 is considered high blood pressure (hypertension) 
The bottom number (diastolic): Ideally less than 80
  Diastolic higher than 80 is considered high blood pressure (hypertension) 

Having either or both of your blood pressure numbers above the ideal level could mean that you have a condition called high blood pressure, or “hypertension." This can happen when your blood vessels become stiff or clogged over time. A hypertension diagnosis needs to be confirmed by a medical professional. This diagnosis requires several readings above normal in your top number (systolic), your bottom number (diastolic), or both.

If you check your blood pressure at home and see that your top number (systolic) is above 180 or the bottom number (diastolic) is above 120, you should rest for five minutes and check your blood pressure again. If either number is still this high after your second check, you should call 911.

(American Heart Association, n.d.)

Ways to blood pressure in a healthy range

While family history can play a role in whether or not you have high blood pressure, there are things you can do to help keep your numbers in the healthy range. These include:
 

Healthier Diet: A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish, nuts, and legumes. 

  • Limit your salt intake and become familiar with how much sodium (salt) is added into pre-packaged foods.
    • Ideally, eat no more 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day. That’s about half a teaspoon.
    • 70% of the salt people eat is “hidden” in packaged and restaurant foods. This includes foods such as poultry, cheese, and bread. 
    • When eating pre-packaged foods, look for terms like “low sodium”, “reduced sodium”, or “lightly salted”. Choose the options with the smallest amount of sodium on the label.
  • Limit your alcohol intake as well. 

Regular Exercise: Regular physical activity, such as walking, can help reduce blood pressure 

Healthy Weight: If you are overweight or have obesity, even a small amount of weight loss (5-10%) can improve your blood pressure.

Quit Smoking: Smoking can raise your blood pressure. Quitting can help bring your blood pressure down. If you don't smoke, don't start.

Medications: Take blood pressure medications exactly as prescribed by your provider 

Teamwork: Partner with your provider to improve your health and blood pressure

(American Heart Association, 2013; American Heart Association, 2017; American Heart Association, 2018; American Heart Association, 2021)

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References

American Heart Association. (n.d.). Understanding blood pressure readings. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/understanding-blood-pressure-readings 

American Heart Association. (2013). 7 salty myths busted. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/7-salty-sodium-myths-busted-infographic 

American Heart Association. (2017). Changes you can make to manage high blood pressure. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure 

American Heart Association. (2017). The facts about high blood pressure. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/the-facts-about-high-blood-pressure 

American Heart Association. (2018). How to reduce sodium. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/how-to-reduce-sodium

American Heart Association. (2021). How much sodium should I eat per day? Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/how-much-sodium-should-i-eat-per-day