Blood Pressure Facts
This one is critical to heart health. According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, 1 in 3 Americans have high blood pressure. When a nurse wraps the cuff around your arm, she's taking a reading of the force on the walls of your arteries, which is subject to fluctuating pressure as the heart beats to push blood through your body. The trouble is, high blood pressure doesn't have any telltale symptoms, so a person might be living with hypertension unknowingly. Over the long haul, elevated blood pressure can damage organs and fuel a cascade of problems.
Action to lower blood pressure can include medications, but diet and exercise can really beat those numbers back into submission. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)—high in veggies, fruit, fish, and whole grains but low in red meat fat and sugar—has been shown to lower blood pressure significantly. And research has suggested that the DASH diet packs an especially powerful wallop when people simultaneously work to reduce salt intake, a known blood pressure booster.
Bottom line: "The only number that really matters is 120 over 80," which is the cutoff for a normal blood pressure reading, says Yancy. The more one's blood pressure surpasses that level, the more damage to the vascular system, heart, and kidneys. The top number is called systolic blood pressure and is the measure of pressure while the heart beats. The bottom number is called diastolic and is the measure of pressure between heart beats. A reading above 120/80 but below 140/90 is considered prehypertension; anything above that is high blood pressure. Both require attention and steps to bring the blood pressure back under control.