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Understanding Blood Pressure Readings

Understanding Blood Pressure Blood pressure is typically recorded as two numbers, written as a ratio like this:

 

117 slash 76 mm Hg

Read as "117 over 76 millimeters of mercury"
 

Systolic

The top number, which is also the higher of the two numbers, measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (when the heart muscle contracts).
 

Diastolic

The bottom number, which is also the lower of the two numbers, measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats (when the heart muscle is resting between beats and refilling with blood).

What is the AHA recommendation for healthy blood pressure?

This blood pressure chart reflects categories defined by the American Heart Association.

Blood Pressure
Category
Systolic
mm Hg (upper #)
  Diastolic
mm Hg (lower #)
Normal less than 120 and less than 80
Prehypertension 120139 or 8089
High Blood Pressure
(Hypertension) Stage 1
140159 or 9099
High Blood Pressure
(Hypertension) Stage 2
160 or higher or 100 or higher
Hypertensive Crisis
(Emergency care needed)
Higher than 180 or Higher than 110

* Your doctor should evaluate unusually low blood pressure readings.

How is high blood pressure diagnosed?

Your healthcare providers will want to get an accurate picture of your blood pressure and chart what happens over time. Starting at age 20, the American Heart Association recommends a blood pressure screening at your regular healthcare visit or once every 2 years, if your blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg.

Watch a BP Test animationYour blood pressure rises with each heartbeat and falls when your heart relaxes between beats. While BP can change from minute to minute with changes in posture, exercise, stress or sleep, it should normally be less than 120/80 mm Hg (less than 120 systolic AND less than 80 diastolic) for an adult age 20 or over. About one in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure.

If your blood pressure reading is higher than normal, your doctor may take several readings over time and/or have you monitor your blood pressure at home before diagnosing you with high blood pressure.

Watch an animation of how a blood pressure test works.

A single high reading does not necessarily mean that you have high blood pressure. However, if readings stay at 140/90 mm Hg or above (systolic 140 or above OR diastolic 90 or above) over time, your doctor will likely want you to begin a treatment program. Such a program almost always includes lifestyle changes and often prescription medication for those with readings of 140/90 or higher.

If, while monitoring your blood pressure, you get a systolic reading of 180 mm Hg or higher OR a diastolic reading of 110 mm HG or higher, wait a couple of minutes and take it again. If the reading is still at or above that level, you should seek immediate emergency medical treatment for a hypertensive crisis. If you can't access the emergency medical services (EMS), have someone drive you to the hospital right away.

Even if your blood pressure is normal, you should consider making lifestyle modifications to prevent the development of HBP and improve your heart health.

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

Typically more attention is given to the top number (the systolic blood pressure) as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over 50 years old. In most people, systolic blood pressure rises steadily with age due to increasing stiffness of large arteries, long-term build-up of plaque, and increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease.

Watch this video to learn more about your blood pressure numbers