Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the vessel walls. Each time the heart beats (contracts and relaxes), the pressure is created inside the large blood vessels (called arteries) that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
Two numbers are recorded when measuring blood pressure.
Systolic pressure (the top number) – This refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart contracts and pumps blood through the body.
Diastolic pressure (the bottom number) – This refers to the pressure inside the arteries when the heart relaxes between beats and fills with blood.
Because pressure is greatest when blood is pumped out of the heart, your systolic number is typically higher than your diastolic number.
Which Number Is More Important?
While both numbers in a blood pressure reading are important, as you grow older, systolic blood pressure is particularly important. Systolic pressure will rise for most people as you get older because the arteries stiffen with age. But a systolic reading that is too high can be cause for concern. For people 60 and older, having high systolic blood pressure can be a major risk factor for heart disease.
Healthy and Unhealthy Blood Pressure Ranges
Learn what’s considered normal, as recommended by the American Heart Association.
Blood Pressure Categories
The five blood pressure ranges as recognized by the American Heart Association are:
Blood pressure numbers of less than 120/80 mm Hg are considered within the normal range. If your results fall into this category, stick with heart-healthy habits like following a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
Elevated blood pressure is when readings consistently range from 120-129 systolic and less than 80 mm Hg diastolic. People with elevated blood pressure are likely to develop high blood pressure unless steps are taken to control the condition.
Hypertension Stage 1
Hypertension Stage 1 is when blood pressure consistently ranges from 130-139 systolic or 80-89 mm Hg diastolic. At this stage of high blood pressure, doctors are likely to prescribe lifestyle changes and may consider adding blood pressure medication based on your risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), such as heart attack or stroke.
Hypertension Stage 2
Hypertension Stage 2 is when blood pressure consistently ranges at 140/90 mm Hg or higher. At this stage of high blood pressure, doctors are likely to prescribe a combination of blood pressure medications and lifestyle changes.
This stage of high blood pressure requires medical attention. If your blood pressure readings suddenly exceed 180/120 mm Hg, wait five minutes and then test your blood pressure again. If your readings are still unusually high, contact your doctor immediately. You could be experiencing a hypertensive crisis.
If your blood pressure is higher than 180/120 mm Hg and you are experiencing signs of possible organ damage such as chest pain, shortness of breath, back pain, numbness/weakness, change in vision or difficulty speaking, do not wait to see if your pressure comes down on its own. Call 911.
Checking your blood pressure routinely will help you better understand how well your high blood pressure is being managed or if changes to your lifestyle or medication are needed.