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What is blood pressure, how it is measured, and what do the measurements mean for our health?

09 September 2020

In this week’s Know Your Health Numbers Sally Harris is discussing blood pressure.  What is it, how it is measured, and what do the measurements mean for our health? Sally is a General Practitioner working at The Wilmslow Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK. 

Powered by our heart and supported on its journey through our arteries, blood pressure has a very important function in our bodies.  The ‘pressure’ pushes our blood around our circulatory system, faithfully delivering oxygen and nutrients to our arteries, organs and tissues.

It also delivers white blood cells and antibodies for immunity, and as the fresh blood is delivered it picks up the toxic waste products such as carbon dioxide and the toxins we clear through our liver and kidneys.

As heroic as blood pressure clearly is, it is also sensitive to lifestyle and environmental factors and can unfortunately become dangerously high.  This increases the risk of serious conditions including heart attack and stroke. Low blood pressure isn’t typically a cause for worry but see you’re GP if you’re at all concerned.

Let’s look at the numbers. 

Blood pressure readings consist of two figures – the systolic pressure first and the diastolic pressure second. The reading is given as, for example, 140 over 90 mm Hg.

The systolic pressure is the higher figure caused by the heart’s contraction, while the diastolic number is the lower pressure in the arteries, during the brief ‘resting’ period between heartbeats.

Ideal blood pressure in a healthy adult is below 120 over 80 (120/80mmHg) and most adults in the UK have a blood pressure of between 120/80 and 140/90.

Blood pressure that is consistently over 140/90 is considered ‘high’ and needs to be addressed – through lifestyle changes and/or taking regular medication.

However, anyone with a reading above 120/80 would benefit from bringing it down if possible, or at least taking steps to prevent it getting any higher.

Blood pressure of 90/60 or less is considered low.

Being diagnosed with high blood pressure is a concern.  But in the majority of cases High blood pressure is caused by unhealthy environments, lifestyles and behaviours (about 30%of high blood pressure relates to eating too much salt, which can be hidden in many foods). 

So the good news is that you can modify some of these at home to lower your blood pressure, thus lowering the risk of heart disease. A balanced diet low in salt, rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products can help control blood pressure and improve your overall heart health.

It’s also important to take regular exercise, maintain a healthy weight and, sorry to be a killjoy, moderate that alcohol intake. In addition to suggested lifestyle changes your doctor might start you on medication to lower your blood pressure, this will reduce your risk of a heart attack and stroke.

If your blood pressure is high, or you are concerned, speak to your GP.

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