What Your Blood Pressure Reading Means

More than 1 in 4 adults in the UK has high blood pressure. So what? Well, according to Blood Pressure UK, high blood pressure is the biggest known cause of disability and premature death in the UK, with 350 people suffering a preventable stroke or heart attack caused by the condition each day. All adults over 40 are encouraged to have their blood pressure checked at least once every 5 years. You probably know that you can have your blood pressure measured at your GP, certain pharmacies or as part of an NHS Health Check, but do you really know what those numbers mean? If not, don’t worry. We’re here to explain what your blood pressure reading means, how to tell whether you have high blood pressure, and what you can do about it…

What is Blood Pressure?

Your blood pressure reading measures the force with which your blood pushes against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps it around your body. It is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg) and consists of two numbers. The first or ‘top’ number is your systolic blood pressure – the highest pressure reached as your heart pushes blood through the blood vessels. The second or ‘bottom’ number is your diastolic pressure – the lowest pressure reached when your heart relaxes between beats. If your systolic pressure is 120 and your diastolic pressure is 80, for instance, your blood pressure is 120/80mmHg or ‘120 over 80′.

What is Normal Blood Pressure?

Normal blood pressure ranges from 90-140 for systolic blood pressure and 60-90 for diastolic pressure. Ideal blood pressure ranges from 90/60 to 120/80. However, most UK adults fall in the 120/80 to 140/90 range. Although readings in this range qualify as ‘normal’, someone with a reading of 135/80 is twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke as someone with a reading of 115/75. If your systolic pressure is over 120 or your diastolic pressure is over 80, it’s well worth taking steps to reduce your blood pressure. The lower your blood pressure, the lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. The thresholds for normal, high and borderline blood pressure don’t change with age, although older people are more likely to have high blood pressure.

What is High Blood Pressure?

If your blood pressure is too high, the additional strain placed on your heart and arteries can lead to heart attack, heart failure, stroke or peripheral arterial disease. High blood pressure has also been linked with kidney disease and certain forms of dementia. If your systolic blood pressure (the top number) is 140 or more, or your diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) is 90 or more, you may have high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), regardless of the other number. A single high reading doesn’t necessarily mean you have high blood pressure, though, as a temporary increase may be caused by stress, exercise, drinking caffeine, eating a big meal or even needing to go to the loo. If your systolic or diastolic blood pressure reading is consistently high over a number of weeks, you should take steps to reduce it.

What is Low Blood Pressure?

If your systolic blood pressure (the top number) is 90 or less, or your diastolic pressure (the bottom number) is 60 or less, you may have low blood pressure, regardless of the other number. Low blood pressure is not usually a cause for concern (the lower your blood pressure, the less likely you are to suffer a heart attack or stroke). However, it may sometimes drop to a point at which you feel faint or dizzy and, in some cases, low blood pressure may be caused by an underlying medical condition.

Symptoms of High Blood Pressure

There are no obvious signs of high blood pressure – hypertension isn’t usually something you feel or notice. However, if your blood pressure is extremely high, you may notice one or more of the following symptoms. 

  • severe headaches
  • fatigue
  • confusion
  • vision problems
  • chest pain
  • irregular heartbeat
  • pounding in the chest, neck or ears
  • difficulty breathing
  • blood in the urine

What Causes High Blood Pressure?

Causes of high blood pressure include:

  • stress
  • eating too much salt
  • not eating enough fruit and vegetables
  • being overweight
  • not getting enough exercise
  • smoking
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • drinking too much caffeine
  • not getting enough sleep
  • ageing (lifestyle effects tend to accumulate over time)
  • certain medical conditions e.g. kidney disease, diabetes
  • certain medications (e.g. the contraceptive pill) and herbal remedies (especially those containing liquorice)
  • a family history of hypertension
  • ethnic origin (those of African, Caribbean or South Asian origin are at greater risk)

How to Lower Blood Pressure

Wondering how to reduce blood pressure? Simply put, the healthier your lifestyle, the lower your blood pressure tends to be, so try to keep to a healthy weight, exercise regularly (the NHS recommends exercising for 30 minutes, 5 times a week – any activity that leaves you feeling warm and slightly out of breath counts) and get at least six hours of sleep a night.

Looking for a high blood pressure diet plan to follow?

  • Cut down on caffeine and stick to the recommended alcohol limits (14 units a week)
  • Reduce your salt intake – read the labels on prepared foods like bread, breakfast cereals and ready meals, and avoid adding salt to cooking or at the table
  • Eat at least five 80g (fist-sized) portions of fruit and vegetables a day, aiming for as wide a range as possible
  • Increase your potassium, calcium and magnesium intake

Foods that Lower Blood Pressure

There is evidence that certain foods can help to reduce blood pressure. Foods to lower blood pressure include:

  • low-fat yoghurt and milk
  • garlic
  • flaxseed
  • dark chocolate and cacao
  • olive oil
  • beetroot juice
  • cashews, almonds and pistachios
  • kale
  • pomegranate
  • oily fish
  • whole grains
  • turmeric
  • green tea
  • hibiscus tea

Blood Pressure Medication, What Are The Options?

Your GP may offer you medication to lower your blood pressure. A wide range of blood pressure medications is available, but there are four main types. ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers relax the blood vessels and are usually prescribed to under-55s. Calcium channel blockers widen the blood vessels and are usually offered to people over 55 and to those of African-Caribbean origin. Thiazide diuretics flush excess water and salt from the body and may be prescribed if calcium channel blockers cause problematic side effects. Beta blockers, which make the heart beat more slowly and less forcefully, are now less commonly prescribed and tend to be used only when other treatments have failed.

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