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Understanding High Blood Pressure

What Is High Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure (also called hypertension) is known as the “silent killer.” This is because most of the time it doesn’t cause symptoms. In fact, many people don’t know they have it until other problems develop. In most cases, high blood pressure can’t be cured. It’s a disease that requires lifelong treatment. The good news is that it CAN be managed.

Artery with smooth walls and arrows showing normal pressure on walls.
Blood flows freely through a healthy artery.

Artery with roughened walls and arrows showing increased pressure on walls.
Artery walls are damaged by high blood pressure. This makes it easier for plaque to build up.

Artery with damaged walls and plaque building up in walls.
Plaque collects, narrowing and stiffening the wall of the artery.

Understanding Blood Pressure

The circulatory system is made up of the heart and blood vessels that carry blood through the body. Your heart is the pump for this system. With each heartbeat (contraction), the heart sends blood out through large blood vessels called arteries. Blood pressure is a measure of how hard the moving blood pushes against the walls of the arteries.

High Blood Pressure Can Harm Your Health

High blood pressure makes the heart work harder to pump blood. Over time, high blood pressure can also cause changes in the artery walls. The walls thicken and become damaged, which leads to a buildup of plaque (a fatty material). This can damage the arteries. It can also reduce blood flow through the artery. If blood pressure is not controlled, all these effects can lead to serious health problems. These include heart failure, heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness.

Measuring Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure is too high if it measures 140/90 (140 over 90) or higher most of the time. The top number is the pressure of blood against the artery walls during a heartbeat (systolic). The bottom number is the pressure of blood against artery walls between heartbeats (diastolic).

type of reading



Too High

Top (systolic)

Below 120


140 or higher

Bottom (diastolic)

Below 80


90 or higher

Controlling Blood Pressure

If your blood pressure is too high, work with your doctor on a plan for lowering it. Below are steps you can take that will help lower your blood pressure.

  • Choose heart-healthy foods: Eating healthier meals helps you control your blood pressure. Ask your doctor about the DASH eating plan. This plan helps reduce blood pressure.

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight makes you more likely to have high blood pressure. Losing excess weight helps lower blood pressure.

  • Exercise regularly: Daily exercise helps your heart and blood vessels work better and stay healthier. It can help lower your blood pressure.

  • Stop smoking: Smoking increases blood pressure and damages blood vessels.

  • Limit alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure. Men should have no more than 2 drinks a day. Women should have no more than 1. (A drink is equal to 1 beer, or a small glass of wine, or a shot of liquor.)

  • Control stress: Stress makes your heart work harder and beat faster. Controlling stress helps you control your blood pressure.

Facts About High Blood Pressure

  • Feeling okay does not mean that blood pressure is under control. Likewise, feeling bad doesn’t mean it’s out of control. The only way to know for sure is to check your pressure regularly.

  • Medication is only one part of controlling high blood pressure. You also need to manage your weight, get regular exercise, and adjust your eating habits.

  • High blood pressure is usually a lifelong problem. But it can be controlled with healthy lifestyle changes and medication.

  • Hypertension is not the same as stress. Although stress may be a factor in high blood pressure, it’s only one part of the story.

  • Blood pressure medications need to be taken every day. Stopping suddenly may cause a dangerous increase in pressure.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 5/15/2011
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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