Seniors & Aging

The heart of the matter: 10 things to know about blood pressure

Blood pressure devices at doctors’ offices are tested regularly, so patients can bring in their home device to have it checked for accuracy. Health-care providers also can provide how-to tips for accurate readings.
Blood pressure devices at doctors’ offices are tested regularly, so patients can bring in their home device to have it checked for accuracy. Health-care providers also can provide how-to tips for accurate readings. Getty Images

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure measures the force your blood exerts against your artery walls when your heart beats and when it rests. The unit of measure is millimeters of mercury.

High blood pressure is more common than low blood pressure and signals major health problems ahead if left untreated.

What are those blood pressure numbers?

Blood pressure is measured as a pair of numbers, such as 130 /85.  The first, higher number is called “systolic” and measures blood pressure against your artery walls when your heart beats. The second, lower number is called “diastolic” and measures blood pressure when your heart rests.

What do the numbers mean?

Normal readings are those below 120 systolic and below 80 diastolic.

People at risk of high blood pressure are 120-139 systolic or 80-89 diastolic.

High blood pressure, stage 1, is 140-159 systolic or 90-99 diastolic.

High blood pressure, stage 2, is 160 or higher systolic or 100 or higher diastolic.

Blood pressure that requires emergency care is higher than 180 systolic or higher than 110 diastolic.

What’s bad about high blood pressure?

High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney disease and chronic heart failure.

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Dr. Jim Hopper, Family Care Network - Bellingham Bay Family Medicine, says patients should become advocates for their health by taking their blood pressure on a regular basis. Family Care Network Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“It is a marker for risk for cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Jim Hopper, a physician at Bellingham Bay Family Medicine and part-time chief medical officer with Family Care Network. “The heart and blood vessels are working harder, so they tend to wear out faster.”

High blood pressure afflicts a third of American adults, and contributes to the death of more than 1,000 Americans each day. Regular monitoring of blood pressure is crucial, because high blood pressure doesn’t display symptoms.

What about low blood pressure?

There’s no benchmark for low blood pressure, so doctors look for such symptoms as dizziness, fainting, nausea, clammy skin and blurred vision. Causes of low blood pressure include infection, allergic reaction, heart problems, reduced blood volume and medications.

How is high blood pressure treated?

Steps to reduce blood pressure are common practices for good health: lose weight, exercise more, eat less salt, drink less alcohol and eat more fruits, vegetables and low-fat proteins.

What makes it hard for seniors to lower their blood pressure?

Hopper says high blood pressure is usually a chronic problem, not an acute one. That means a heart attack or other bad consequence isn’t likely immediately, but is more likely later if steps aren’t taken. That makes it easier to shirk healthful changes and medication.

“Because they don’t feel high blood pressure, they have trouble internalizing the idea that they need to take medication for the future,” Hopper says.

Can blood pressure pills clash with other medicines?

Doctors usually start with low dosages of blood pressure medication, then check for results and side effects before making changes. Knowing a patient’s other medicines is key.

“Any medication can have almost any side effect,” Hopper says, “so good communication is important.”

How should you monitor blood pressure at home?

Hopper says devices with cuffs around the upper arm are more accurate than finger or wrist ones. Devices at doctors’ offices are tested regularly, so patients can bring in their home device to have it checked for accuracy, he says. Health-care providers also can provide how-to tips for accurate readings.

How can patients “own” their blood pressure?

Hopper says patients should become advocates for their health by taking their blood pressure on a regular basis and by asking what needs to be done when it’s high.

“Seniors with that approach tend to fare much better,” he says.

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