On its own, high blood pressure, or hypertension, may not seem like a big deal. It doesn’t have any symptoms, after all, and you may feel “just fine” while you have it.
“Blood pressure is actually just the pressure that we measure in your arteries when the heart contracts and then relaxes,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center.
The top number represents the pressure when your heart contracts (the systolic pressure), and the bottom shows the pressure when it relaxes (diastolic pressure). Blood pressure readings fall into one of four categories, according to Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, a clinical instructor in medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital.
Normal blood pressure is less than 120 (systolic) over less than 80 (diastolic).
Elevated blood pressure is between 120 and 129 (systolic) over less than 80 (diastolic).
Hypertension stage 1 is between 130 and 139 (systolic) over 80 to 89 (diastolic).
Hypertension stage 2 is 140 or greater (systolic) over 90 or greater (diastolic).
Here’s more information about how to read blood pressure numbers to understand your heart health.
“Ultimately, when you have hypertension, it’s important for you to … get checked by your doctor on a regular basis,” says Rachel Bond, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Overlooking your high blood pressure (or not knowing you have it) can lead to a host of problems, and many of them quite serious. A 2010 report on the burden of global diseases found that high blood pressure had become the leading risk factor for diseases in the world, ranking above smoking, malnutrition, and communicable diseases.
Here are some of the risks associated with hypertension, according to Dr. Bond:
High BP can increase your risk of blockages in your heart. Clogged arteries stress and weaken the heart, and they are the primary cause of heart attacks. Over time, the workload from hypertension may lead to heart disease and heart failure. Learn the other risk factors for heart failure here.
High BP can increase your risk of stroke. When blood vessels in the brain are blocked, they are more likely to burst, causing a stroke. This, in turn, can increase your risk of vascular dementia.
High BP can increase your risk of kidney disease. Because hypertension can damage the arteries around the kidneys, this will affect their ability to filter blood properly, according to the American Heart Association.
“These are all major medical conditions,” says Dr. Bond. “The sooner we find out about them, the better off because then we can treat them adequately.” Heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so treating high blood pressure early could avert a life-or-death situation.
One suggestion? Know your personal risks. If you have one or more risk factors for heart disease, controlling your blood pressure can be an essential and proactive weapon, according to Dr. Knoepflmacher. Here are the lifestyle tweaks for a healthier heart.