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What the new blood pressure guidelines mean to you

The stakes have just been raised: Until recently, a blood pressure reading of 140/90 mm Hg was considered healthy. But new government guidelines suggest that Americans need to lower their levels even more to avoid their risk of heart disease.

What does this mean?

If you’ve been keeping your blood pressure between 120/80 and 140/90, you are now considered to have pre-hypertension and you may soon be joining the 73 million Americans who have high blood pressure.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, often leads to heart disease and is the primary risk factor for stroke. It’s estimated that more than 90 percent of the U.S. population will have hypertension at some point in their lives.

What you can do

First, make sure you know your blood pressure levels. High blood pressure is often called the silent killer because it tends to do its damage quietly, without causing symptoms. The only way to know your level is to measure it.

Your results are expressed as two numbers, such as 115/75 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury). The first number is the systolic pressure, or your blood flow’s force on your artery walls when your heart beats. The second number is the diastolic pressure that exists between beats when your heart is resting. While both top and bottom numbers are important, if you are over age 50, your systolic pressure is the more critical measure of your risk for a heart attack or a stroke, regardless of your diastolic pressure.

Unfortunately, for thousands of Americans each year, their first sign of high blood pressure is a heart attack or a stroke. But it doesn’t have to be that way. High blood pressure is easy for doctors to detect, and you have plenty of options to help you control your levels.

Attacking high blood pressure

Talk with your doctor about the best approach to take for lowering your blood pressure. He or she may prescribe one or more drugs to help you control your blood pressure. The medication your doctor prescribes depends on many factors and may include:

  • diuretics, which help rid the body of the excess water and salt that can cause high blood pressure
  • beta blockers, which slow down heart rate to reduce the amount of blood the heart has to pump
  • vasodilators, ACE inhibitors and receptor blockers, and calcium channel blockers, which help open up narrowed blood vessels

In some instances, you may need to take more than one type of drug.

Take stock of your lifestyle

If you have slightly elevated blood pressure, lifestyle changes may be all you need. Consider taking these heart-healthy steps:

  • Lose weight. If you are overweight, even a 10-pound weight loss can help.
  • Exercise. Try walking for at least 30 to 45 minutes, three to five times a week.
  • Reduce your salt intake. Consume no more than about one teaspoon each day. Check labels for sodium content.
  • Follow the DASH eating plan. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute plan is low in saturated fat, cholesterol, red meat and sugar. DASH emphasizes fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts.
  • Increase potassium in your diet. Try baked potatoes, tomatoes, squash, plain yogurt, prunes, lima beans and bananas.
  • Limit alcohol. Drinking more than one alcoholic beverage a day if you’re a woman and two a day if you’re a man can raise blood pressure.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking speeds up hardening of the arteries, increases your cardiovascular disease risk and can make blood pressure medication less effective.