Do you know what your blood pressure is? Do you know what a "normal" blood pressure is? It's surprising how many people say no to either or both of those questions. But this is National High Blood Pressure Education Month in the United States, so let's do some educating.
First, some sobering numbers from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC):
- Among American adults who are in the community, meaning that they are not in a hospital or a long-term care facility, about 1/3 or about 68 million have high blood pressure (hypertension).
- Hypertension is very expensive to the economy. With the associated healthcare services and medications, as well as missed days of work, hypertension costs the United States about $93.5 billion (with a B) in 2010, and the costs are rising.
But what exactly is hypertension?
As your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood away towards your body's organs and tissues, the blood pushes against the arteries, which carry the blood. The more resistance the blood meets as it goes through, the harder the the heart has to pump and the higher the pressure goes. The less resistance there is, the lower the blood pressure goes.
Picture a garden hose. As the hose rests along the ground, straight, the water pressure remains even as it flows through. If you pinch the hose, or make the end narrower, the pressure will build up. Along the same lines, if you cut holes in the hose or replace it with a wider hose, the pressure will not be as strong.
When the heart has to work hard to get the blood through the arteries, it can tire or become damaged.
So, why is that dangerous?
The harder your heart has to work, the higher the risk of it becoming damaged or you developing heart disease. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in North America.
You can't wait until you have signs of high blood pressure because there are no symptoms. This is exactly why hypertension is called the silent killer. By the time the damage is done, it's often too late.
Finding out your blood pressure
Many drugstores have blood pressure machines in the pharmacy area that anyone may use. If you don't know your blood pressure, this is a good place to start, unless you are seeing your doctor or nurse practitioner anyway.
Your blood pressure has two numbers, an upper number and a lower one. The upper number is the systolic pressure, as the heart beats. The lower number is the diastolic pressure, as the heart relaxes. When a nurse takes your blood pressure with a stethoscope, he or she is listening for when the beating of the blood begins as it flows through the artery and then when it can no longer be heard. The measurements are in millimeters of mercury, or mmHg.
The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute suggests that a normal blood pressure for a healthy adult 18 years old or older is one where the systolic number is 120 mmHg or lower and the diastolic is 80 mmHg or lower. A blood pressure of 120 to 139 over 80 to 89 is considered to be prehypertension. This is followed by stage I hypertension (140 to 159 over 90 to 99) and stage II (160 or higher over 100 or higher).
If you are monitoring your blood pressure at a local store or with a machine that you have at home, it's important to be consistent by using the same machine each time, much the way you should weigh yourself on the same scale each time. Every machine is a bit different. Your blood pressure may come out to three different readings on three different machines. By taking it always on the same machine, you will see if there are any changes. It is also best to take it at the same time of day each time as blood pressures can rise and fall throughout the day.
If you think that your blood pressure is too high, you should talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner about it. It could be helpful if you keep a record of your own blood pressure measurements, a diary, so you can show the doctor what you mean.
White coat syndrome
Some people have perfectly normal blood pressures, but it shoots up whenever they have their pressure taken by a doctor or nurse. This is what we often call white coat syndrome. If this happens to you, having your own machine at home and keeping track yourself may be more helpful than just having your pressure taken at the doctor's office.
Low blood pressure
You don't hear about low blood pressure too often because, as a rule, it's not a serious problem in every day life. If you are up and about, living life as you want, a lower than average blood pressure is likely not going to cause any problems. However, people with low blood pressures can get dizzy more quickly than other people, so it is important for them to get up slowly from a sitting position, be sure they are well hydrated, and to eat well.
So - what's your blood pressure? Feel free to let us know in the comments section. Mine is usually around 115/70 or so, but it's been much lower, so I'm one of the ones who has to be very careful sometimes.
(Blog post number 2 of Blogathon 2012!)