Understanding blood pressure

person using blood pressure monitor

Blood pressure is the pressure of your blood on the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps it around your body. It naturally goes up and down often during the day, depending on what you are doing – such as when you’re exercising or sleeping.

If you’ve ever had your blood pressure checked, you will know that there are two numerical readings, usually presented as a fraction – e.g. 120/75 mmHg. The top number is always the higher one. It is called the systolic blood pressure, and it is higher than the bottom number because it’s indicating the blood pressure when your heart is contracting (squeezing) the blood out to the arteries. Whereas the smaller number, your diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart is relaxed – i.e. when it is filling up with blood.

Millimetres of mercury (mmHg) is simply the unit in which blood pressure is measured.

Which number is more important – the top (systolic) or bottom (diastolic)?

Usually the top number (the systolic blood pressure) carries greater significance when it comes to indicating cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease in people over the age of 50.

Overall, systolic blood pressure generally rises steadily with age. This is usually because of increasing stiffness of large arteries, build-up of plaque over the years, and increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease.

Normal blood pressure readings

According to the Heart Foundation of Australia, as a general guide: blood pressure below 120/80 mmHg can be classified as ‘optimal’; blood pressure between 120/80 and 129/84 mmHg is ‘normal’; and. blood pressure between 130/85 and 139/89 mmHg is classified as ‘high-normal’.

Your chances of having persistently high blood pressure increases as you age.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure is when your blood pressure is consistently higher than normal. It is medically known as ‘hypertension’.

High blood pressure is often called a ‘silent killer’ because, if left untreated, it can increase your risk of developing a number of serious long-term health conditions such as coronary heart disease and kidney disease.

The tricky thing about high blood pressure is that it often doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms, so the only way to know your risk is to have yours measured by your GP.

Health benefits of lowering your blood pressure

Reduce your risk of angina 

Uncontrolled hypertension or high blood pressure can lead to damage to the coronary arteries, increasing your risk of chest pain.

“When the heart muscle doesn’t receive the oxygen it needs to work harder than normal, or when your coronary arteries become narrowed, you can experience pain in this area,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director for Healthspan.

Reduce your risk of a heart attack

Heart attacks are one of the major risks of living with high blood pressure.

Dr Brewer explains “Heart attacks can occur when the blood supply through damaged coronary arteries becomes blocked due to a spasm, or a build-up of porridge-like atheroma and clotted blood.”

Lower your chances of stroke

Blood vessels that are damaged can disrupt the blood supply to brain cells, warns Dr Brewer, which can cause an ischaemic stroke. There’s also an extra risk of the blood vessels bursting due to damage, which can cause a haemorrhagic stroke.

Men can lower their risk of erectile dysfunction 

ED is the most common sexual problem in men, and can have a major impact on your self-confidence and mental health. “A damaged blood supply from high blood pressure reduces the strength or occurrence of erections,” notes Dr Brewer.

Keep your kidneys healthy

“When blood vessels are damaged in the kidneys, it can reduce the filtering of excess fluid and water-soluble toxins from the circulation,” warns Dr Brewer. When your kidneys lose their natural ability to filter, dangerous levels of wastes can build up in your body and cause kidney failure.

Keep your eyes healthy

Not many people are aware that high blood pressure can effect your eyesight. “Damaged blood vessels in the eyes can reduce vision, sometimes suddenly if there is a bleed within the retina,” says Dr Brewer.

How to look after your blood pressure

If your blood pressure reading is high, doctors can help you to keep your blood pressure to a safe level by prescribing certain medications, but lifestyle changes can help to combat the issue too.

1. Get waist wise

If you’re overweight or obese, losing weight is one of the most effective things you can do to lower your blood pressure.

Safe and sustainable weight loss can be achieved through a healthy diet and regular exercise, and some people find that sticking to a calorie limit can help them to keep track of their intake.

Waist circumference for adults is a good indicator of total body fat and is a better predictor of certain chronic conditions than BMI. A waist circumference above 80 cm for women and above 94 cm for men is associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions. A waist circumference above 88 cm for women and above 102 cm for men is associated with a substantially increased risk of chronic conditions.

2. Get active

It’s no secret that exercise is good for you and lowering your blood pressure is just one of its many benefits. A 2013 study found that inactive older adults who took part in daily aerobic exercise were able to significantly reduce their blood pressure over time.

3. Cut down on salt

Salt encourages your body to retain water which puts strain on your kidneys, arteries, heart and brain, and raises your blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, try not to cook with salt and don’t have it as an option on the table.

It’s also a good idea to cut back on processed foods, as these can contain a lot of hidden salt too. Instead, prepare your own meals and buy fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables. If you feel like your food is lacking in flavour, try adding fresh herbs or spices instead.

4. Don’t drink too much alcohol

Drinking too much can raise blood pressure for various reasons, including the tightening of blood vessels and an increase of fats in the blood, which can harden arteries. If you drink alcohol, stick within the recommended limits – no more than 3–4 units a day for men and no more than 2–3 for women.

5. Talk to your doctor about medication

It’s important to know that medication won’t cure high blood pressure though. So you have to keep taking them daily – as well as continue with a healthy lifestyle ­– to control your blood pressure, often for the rest of your life.

Blood pressure doesn’t have any symptoms, so it’s best to get it regularly checked with your doctor. If you have hypertension, your doctor will be able to advise you of the optimal way to control it.

Is high or low blood pressure a concern for you? Has it become a concern as you’ve aged? Share your experience in the comments section below.

Also read: Keeping your blood pressure in this range can slow brain ageing

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Ellie Baxter

Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.

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