Testing Know Your Blood Pressure

A blood pressure measurement is two readings that look like a fraction. For example, an optimal reading is 120/80 mm Hg, expressed as "120 over 80" (mm Hg is millimeters of mercury). If it's less, that's okay.

  • The higher number on top is systolic pressure. That's the pressure when your heart (the ventricle) contracts, pumping blood out to your arteries.
  • The bottom number, diastolic pressure, is the pressure on your arteries between heartbeats, when your heart is at rest.

Blood Pressure: For Adults*



Normal <120 mm Hg and

Prehypertension 120-139 mm Hg or

High Stage 1 140-159 mm Hg or

Stage 2 >160 mm Hg or


*These categories are for people age eighteen or over. The categories are for those not on a high blood pressure medication and who have no short-term serious illness.

Source: Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure, U.S. Department of Health and human Services, National Institutes of Health/National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National High Blood Pressure Education Program, 2003.

Whether you suspect high blood pressure or not, have your blood pressure checked at least every two years. If it's high normal (130-139 mm Hg over 8589 mm Hg) or high, have it checked more often and take steps to bring it down. Even children should be checked as part of their regular physical exams.

If your systolic, but not diastolic, pressure is high, you can have high blood pressure. With age, systolic blood pressure goes up; diastolic pressure does too until age fifty-five or so, then often goes down. "Isolated systolic hypertension" is the most common type of high blood pressure for older Americans.

Blood pressure may fluctuate a bit during the day. Often the doctor's visit itself makes the number rise slightly; that's sometimes called "white-coat

Have You Ever Wondered J... what to do if you have prehypertension? Even highnormal blood pressure appears to increase cardiovascular risk significantly. If you fit into this category, you're smart to monitor your blood pressure regularly—and to make lifestyle and dietary changes now to bring your blood pressure down to a healthier level. That's equally important if you have high cholesterol levels, diabetes, or other cardiovascular risk factors, or if you're an older adult.

hypertension," which refers to white medical lab coats. To diagnose high blood pressure you need two higher-than-nor-mal readings taken one to several weeks apart.

If either your systolic or your diastolic number, or both, are consistently at or above 140/90 mm Hg, there's cause for concern. Usually high blood pressure is managed by a combination of medication, nutrition, and lifestyle changes. For those with diabetes, a still lower blood pressure goal might be advised.

Your local pharmacist may offer blood pressure readings as a free service. Or buy an electronic blood pressure measuring device to use at home. To check its accuracy, bring it to your next doctor's visit.

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