Q: What do the numbers in a blood pressure reading mean?
A: Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is known as "the silent killer" because it often has no warning signs or symptoms, so many people do not know they have it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 70 million people have high blood pressure, and only about half of them have it under control.
Normal blood pressure is around 120/80. Systolic pressure, the top number, measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. Diastolic pressure, the bottom number, measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats.
Risk factors that contribute to hypertension include family history, a high-salt diet, inactivity, obesity, older age and diabetes. While stress may not cause chronic high blood pressure, ongoing stress and certain coping behaviors (overeating, smoking and drinking alcohol, for example), can put you at risk. Smoking, second-hand smoke, and sleep apnea may also contribute to high blood pressure.
If your readings stay at 140/90 or above over the span of several readings, your doctor will likely want you to begin a treatment program.
Hypertension is often treated with medications, but it always is essential to address any lifestyle habits that are contributing. According to the American Heart Association, there are seven key ways you can control your blood pressure: