Nearly 30 million Americans have joined the ranks of people battling high blood pressure—not because their health has changed in any significant way, but because the guidelines for hypertension have evolved.
It’s a staggering statistic: Half of the adults in the United States now have high blood pressure. Or, to put it another way, over 150 million of us are walking around with a condition that increases our chances of developing a life-threatening disease that could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Nearly 30 million Americans have joined the ranks of people battling high blood pressure—not because their health has changed in any significant way, but because the guidelines for hypertension have evolved. Blood pressure readings that were once in the safe or slightly-higher-than-normal range are now considered high.
“While many people think of high blood pressure as a disease that affects older adults, younger people should be vigilant, especially now that our guidelines have changed,” said Dr. Andrew Friedman, a cardiologist at Jefferson Health. “It’s true that blood pressure increases as we get older and our arteries harden and become less elastic, but lifestyle factors also lead to hypertension—and young adults are not immune.”
How Have the Guidelines Changed?
Your blood pressure reading includes two numbers, the systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) pressures.
“The systolic pressure is a measure of the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats,” says Dr. Friedman. “The diastolic pressure is the pressure in your arteries between beats.”
The new set of guidelines released by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology set the threshold for “normal” blood pressure at a reading below 120/80. Blood pressure above this is considered high. The new guidelines place high readings into the following categories:
- Elevated: Systolic between 120-129 and diastolic less than 80
- Stage 1: Systolic between 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89
- Stage 2: Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90
Blood pressure over 180 systolic or 120 diastolic is considered a crisis that requires immediate medical attention or hospitalization.
Does This Mean You Need Medication?
“If your blood pressure is elevated or falls into Stage 1 hypertension, you don’t immediately need to start taking medication,” says Dr. Friedman. “Unless you have had a previous cardiovascular event or have a medical condition that increases your chances for one, our typical first line of defense is to recommend lifestyle changes.”
These lifestyle changes include adopting a healthier diet such as the DASH diet, which is designed to help lower blood pressure. It focuses on eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts. When you follow this diet, you also cut down on red meats and foods that are high in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar.
“To lower your blood pressure, you should also exercise regularly if your doctor says it’s OK, quit smoking if you currently smoke, and reduce your alcohol intake,” says Dr. Friedman. “In many cases, these changes can help bring slightly elevated blood pressure back down to normal.”
Regular Screenings Are Life-Savers
You should have your blood pressure monitored annually, and more frequently if it’s too high. However, don’t panic if you have one high reading.
“Many factors affect blood pressure, including your anxiety level, a cup of coffee, or the fact that you’ve been running errands all day with your kids,” says Dr. Friedman. “If you have one high reading, we’ll take another reading at a different time before making a diagnosis.”
It’s important not to wait if you haven’t had a blood pressure reading recently.
“High blood pressure is a silent killer,” says Dr. Friedman. “There typically aren’t any warning symptoms that you have high blood pressure, and many people only find out after a serious cardiac event like a heart attack or a stroke.”
Scheduling regular checkups with your doctor, who can assess your blood pressure, is an important part of maintaining your overall health.