Nearly half of all adults have high blood pressure. High blood pressure often leads to heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Taking steps to understand and manage your blood pressure before issues arise can reduce your chances of heart disease, stroke and other health serious conditions.

How Blood Pressure Works

Blood pressure describes the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels. “When your heart beats, your blood should be able to easily pass through your arteries and veins. If there are any factors limiting the flow of blood though your vessels, such as bad cholesterol buildup, your body must work harder for blood to circulate,” says Daisy Lazarous, MD, a cardiologist with Adventist Medical Group. “This extra work can damage your arteries and veins, laying the foundation for high blood pressure and other complications.”

Risk Factors

Dr. Lazarous says unhealthy habits, such as eating foods with too much salt, drinking too much alcohol or being physically inactive often leads to high blood pressure. Here are other factors that may raise your risk of high blood pressure:

  • Age – Our blood vessels tend to thicken over time, which increases your risk.
  • Family History – High blood pressure usually runs in families. Some may also have a higher sensitivity to sodium or possess certain genes that predispose them to high blood pressure later in life.
  • Taking Medication – In some cases, birth control pills or over-the-counter cold relief medicine may increase your blood pressure.
  • Race or Ethnicity – High blood pressure is most common in African-American, Hispanic/Latino and Asian adults. African-Americans are more likely to get high blood pressure earlier in life compared to other groups.
  • Gender – Before age 55, men are more likely to develop high blood pressure than women. After age 55, women are more likely to develop high blood pressure.

Understanding Your Blood Pressure Numbers

When you get your blood pressure checked, you will be given two numbers – your systolic and diastolic blood pressure. “The first number is your systolic blood pressure, which measures the pressure of the blood exerted on the walls of your arteries when your heart beats,” Dr. Lazarous says. “The second number is your diastolic blood pressure, which measures the pressure of the blood exerted on the walls of your arteries when in between heart beats.”

Normal vs High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure may be diagnosed if either of your numbers are higher than what is considered normal. “Generally, a healthy adult should have blood pressure reading at or below 120/80 Hg. Your blood pressure is considered elevated or high if it’s higher than 120/80 Hg,” Dr. Lazarous says. “In general, the lower your blood pressure number, the better.”

Tips on Managing your Blood Pressure Levels

Keeping your blood pressure levels low will reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and other serious conditions. Here are a few tips to help manage your blood pressure:

Get Screened

Since high blood pressure often produces no symptoms, getting screened by your doctor is the best way to learn your risk. “During a blood pressure screening, your doctor will place a cuff around your arm that expands and contracts,” Dr. Lazarous says. “I recommend that everyone who is at least three years old have their blood pressure checked at least once a year.” If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure by your doctor, you will need more regular screenings.

Adopt Heart-Healthy Habits

Make adopting heart-healthy habits a daily priority. Eat foods low in saturated fats and high in nutrients and get at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise. Examples of heart-healthy habits include eating more whole grains, fruits and leafy-green vegetables and power walking or riding your bike at least five days a week. Also, taking steps to quit smoking and reducing your alcohol intake can help.

Manage your Stress

Stress can negatively impact your overall well-being and blood pressure. “Your body releases hormones in stressful situations that constrict your blood vessels and raise your blood pressure. If you are stressed, learn what triggers it and focus on relaxing your body,” Dr. Lazarous says. “Sit quietly and slowly inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth to calm your body.”

Take your Prescribed Medication

In addition to lifestyle changes, your doctor will likely prescribe blood pressure medication to help manage your levels. “Take any medication your doctor prescribes regularly and do not skip doses. If you experience any issues while taking blood pressure medication, your doctor can help you find the right medication and come up with a plan that fits your needs,” Dr. Lazarous says.

Sources: American Heart Association, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control

Do you know your heart's age? Find out how healthy your heart is with our fast & free heart risk assessment.