High blood pressure, also called hypertension, affects almost half of adults in the U.S., and is defined as a systolic (top number) blood pressure greater than 130 mmHg or a diastolic (bottom number) blood pressure greater than 80 mmHg, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). How much do you know about high blood pressure? Read on and find out!
Blood pressure myths and facts
Constant headaches or nosebleeds are sure signs that your blood pressure is high.
Myth. The American Heart Association says that, in most cases, headaches or nosebleeds are NOT signs of high blood pressure. The one exception? Hypertensive crisis, which is when blood pressure is 180/120 mmHg or higher (this is a medical emergency and if this happens, call 911). Otherwise, headaches or nosebleeds that are recurring could be symptoms of other health conditions, and you should contact your health care provider to get those addressed. By the way, other symptoms that often are not caused by high blood pressure are dizziness, facial flushing, and blood spots in the eyes. These symptoms, like headaches and nosebleeds, need medical attention, but don’t necessarily mean that your blood pressure is high.
A “healthy” blood pressure number is below 120/80 mmHg.
Fact. In general, the blood pressure goal for most adults is less than 120/80 mmHg. Stage 1 blood pressure is a systolic reading of 130-139 or a diastolic reading of 80-89, and stage 2 high blood pressure is a systolic blood pressure 140 or higher or a diastolic blood pressure of 90 or higher. “The lower your blood pressure, the better your chances or preventing or delaying a heart attack or a stroke,” says the American Diabetes Association. In addition, high blood pressure can lead to kidney disease and eye problems.
As with blood glucose and A1C goals (a measure of long-term glucose control), blood pressure goals may be different for some people. The 2022 American Diabetes Association Standards of Medical Care, for example, state that people with diabetes and high blood pressure should aim for a blood pressure less than 140/90. For people at higher risk for heart disease, the goal may be less than 130/80. Find out your blood pressure goal by talking with your health care provider.
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Regularly using a blood pressure monitor at home is an effective way to help lower your blood pressure.
Fact. It might seem like one more thing to check (especially if you’re already checking your blood sugars), but evidence shows that people with high blood pressure are more likely to lower their blood pressure if they monitor it at home combined with support from their health care team, than if they don’t monitor it at home. Home blood pressure monitors are safe and easy to use, and they can reflect your blood pressure on a day-to-day basis. Choose a blood pressure monitor that measures blood pressure on the upper arm, not the wrist. For a listing of validated (clinically accurate) home blood pressure monitors, visit the US Blood Pressure Validated Device Listing website. And talk with your health care provider about when and how often to check your blood pressure at home. Some devices will store your readings, but if yours doesn’t, use a blood pressure log to help you track and share your readings with your provider.
Lowering your sodium intake means just not adding salt to your foods or using it in cooking.
Myth. If there is too much sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels. This higher volume of blood causes blood pressure to go up. By eating less sodium in your diet, you can lower your risk for high blood pressure, and if you already have high blood pressure, you can better manage it. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day; the American Heart Association goes one step further, stating that no more than 1500 mg daily is ideal for most adults.
Salt is one source of sodium in the diet, so it makes sense to use less of it. But the reality is that we get most of our sodium from processed foods. More specifically, these are the top “salty six” foods:
- Breads and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Burritos and tacos
Fast foods are another main source of sodium. Food manufacturers add various forms of sodium to foods for flavor, to enhance color, to provide texture, and also to act as a preservative. So, while a good first step is to leave the salt shaker in the cupboard, remember to read ingredient lists on labels for other sources of sodium and salt. Don’t forget to check the sodium content per serving on the Nutrition Facts label, as well.
Fitting regular physical activity in your daily routine can help you lower your blood pressure.
Fact. It’s true! Physical activity can lower your blood sugars and it can help you lower and manage your blood pressure, too. Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger. This means that your heart can more efficiently pump blood, and this decreases the force on your arteries. You can lower your systolic blood pressure by 3 to 6 mmHg and your diastolic blood pressure by 4 to 12 mmHg, according to the Mayo Clinic (here’s another reason to check your blood pressure at home). Being active also help you maintain a healthy weight, another way to help you manage your blood pressure.
The goal for physical activity is to aim for at least 150 minutes a week. That might sound like a lot, but remember you can break it up. Try doing 30 minutes, five days a week, for example. And you can break up those 30 minutes into smaller segments, such as doing 10 minutes, three times a day.
You can stop taking your blood pressure medication if your blood pressure readings are within your target range.
Myth. Many people who have high blood pressure will need to take medication, in addition to making lifestyle changes, to help get and keep blood pressure at healthy levels. Blood pressure medications, when taken as directed, can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. You might need to always take medication to manage your blood pressure, but some people may be able to stop them.
There are certain factors that contribute to high blood pressure that are “modifiable,” meaning, if you change them, you may be able to manage your blood pressure without medication, or without taking as much medication. These factors include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Consuming too much sodium
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Drinking too much alcohol
But other factors that contribute to high blood pressure are unmodifiable, which may mean that you will likely need to keep taking blood pressure medication. These factors include:
- Kidney disease
- Family history of high blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Being older
What’s most important is that you never stop taking your blood pressure medication (even if you “feel fine”) without first talking with your health care provider. They may be able to change your medication or reduce the amount that you need to take.
Want to learn more about high blood pressure? Read “Treating High Blood Pressure,” “Blood Pressure Chart: What Do Your Blood Pressure Readings Mean?” and “What Is Resistant Hypertension?”