Health Checkup: What you need to know about high blood pressure

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High blood pressure typically develops over many years, and it affects nearly one-third of the American adult population. Most people with high blood pressure have no signs or symptoms, but it increases your risk for serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke.

Blood pressure refers to the pressure in the arteries as blood passes through them. A blood pressure reading has two numbers, usually displayed like this: 120/80. The first, or upper number, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats (systolic pressure). The second, or lower number, measures the pressure in your arteries between heart beats (diastolic pressure).

It is important to have a doctor monitor your blood pressure regularly to establish baselines and look for increases. Blood pressure norms vary from person to person, but general guidelines from the American Heart Association are as follows:

• Normal — less than 120 systolic and less than 80 diastolic
• Pre-hypertension — 120-139 systolic and 80-89 diastolic
• High (Stage 1) — 140-159 systolic and 90-99 diastolic
• High (Stage 2) — 160 or higher systolic and 100 or higher diastolic

Your doctor will likely take two or three blood pressure readings each at two or more separate appointments before diagnosing you with high blood pressure. If your doctor feels you need medication to control your high blood pressure, be sure to take the medication as indicated.

Changing your lifestyle can also go a long way toward controlling high blood pressure. Here are a few suggestions:

Eat healthy foods. Try the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Also, eat less fatty foods.
Decrease the salt in your diet. Limit your sodium intake by putting down the saltshaker and being aware of the total salt in the food you eat, especially in processed foods such as canned soups or frozen dinners. Usually, 1,500 milligrams a day is recommended to lower your blood pressure. .
Maintain a healthy weight and increase physical activity. Losing even five pounds can lower your blood pressure. .
Don’t smoke. Tobacco speeds up the process of hardening of the arteries. .
Monitor your blood pressure at home. Home blood pressure monitoring can confirm that your blood pressure is under control or alert you to see a doctor if it increases.

Remember: High blood pressure is not a problem you can treat and ignore. It is a condition you need to manage for the rest of your life.