Its dj vu. Every time you go for an examination, your physician wraps an inflatable cuff around your upper arm. Air is pumped into the cuff until circulation is cut off; then a stethoscope is placed over the cuff. Silence -- and then the verdict. We hear numbers. We learn our blood pressure is either fine, low, pre-hypertension, or the dreaded high or hypertension. But really, what does it all mean?
Blood pressure is a measurement of the force applied against the walls of our arteries as the heart pumps blood through our body. The pressure is determined by the force and amount of blood pumped and the size and flexibility of our arteries. A reading consists of two numbers, for example: 112/77, which is read as "112 over 77."
The first number, systolic blood pressure, measures the maximum pressure exerted as the heart contracts, while the lower number indicates diastolic pressure, a measurement taken between beats, when the heart is at rest.
Its crucial to know what your blood pressure numbers mean because if you have high blood pressure (hypertension), life-threatening complications can develop. If its high, your arteries are being compromised by the pressure of your hearts exertion while it pumps. Increased pressure on the inner wall of blood vessels make them less flexible over time and more vulnerable to the build-up of fatty deposits known as atherosclerosis.
Normal blood pressure is usually said to be 120/80 (systolic/diastolic) or less, measured in millimeters of mercury (abbreviated as mm Hg). What do blood pressure numbers indicate? The higher (systolic) number represents the pressure while the heart is beating. The lower (diastolic) number represents the pressure when the heart is resting between beats.
The systolic pressure is always stated first and the diastolic pressure second. For example: 122/76 (122 over 76); systolic = 122, diastolic = 76. Blood pressure of less than 140 over 90 is considered a normal reading for adults. A systolic pressure of 130 to 139 or a diastolic pressure of 85 to 89 needs to be watched carefully. A blood pressure reading equal to or greater than 140 (systolic) over 90 (diastolic) is considered elevated (high).
The American Heart Association has recommended guidelines to define normal and high blood pressure:
Normal blood pressure less than 120/80
Pre-hypertension 120-139/ 80-89
High blood pressure (stage 1) 140-159/90-99
High blood pressure (stage 2) higher than 160/100
Constant high blood pressure - above 140/90 - is called hypertension. As many as 60 million Americans have high blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure may be responsible for death and disability resulting from heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure.
Blood pressure should be routinely checked every one to two years and can be monitored more closely during illnesses that affect blood pressure or during medical treatments.
If you have high blood pressure your doctor can recommend lifestyle changes and medication to keep it at a safe level. The good news: Most cases of hypertension are treatable.
Robin Westen is ThirdAges medical reporter. Check for her daily updates.
See what others have to say about this story, or leave a comment of your own.