When was the last time you had your blood pressure checked? Do you know your blood pressure numbers and what they mean?
High blood pressure has the medical name of ‘hypertension’, but it also carries a more sinister name – “the silent killer” – because it often presents no symptoms yet can trigger potentially fatal medical crises. If it goes undetected and untreated, high blood pressure can significantly increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. It can also damage the kidneys, brain and other organs and increase your risk of developing a number of serious long-term health conditions.
High blood pressure can be treated relatively easily, helping protect you from the outcomes listed above, but first it must be detected and diagnosed. For many people it is picked up during routine medical checks, but if you are generally healthy you might have high blood pressure without even knowing it. Current estimates suggest around 5.6 million people in England alone have high blood pressure without being aware.
The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked, which is quick and simple. You can have it done at your local GP surgery (usually by a practice nurse) or many local pharmacies now offer a free blood pressure check service. You can also buy a simple-to-use home blood pressure monitor, widely available from around £20, to keep a regular check on your blood pressure and that of other family members.
So what is blood pressure? Put simply, it is a measure of the force that your heart uses to pump blood around your body. That force is measure in millimetres of mercury, written as ‘mmHg’. Nowadays most blood pressure monitors have a digital display, but older devices (called ‘sphygmomanometers’) used something that looked like a thermometer, with a column of mercury rising and falling in a tube to indicate blood pressure. That’s why blood pressure is stilled recorded in millimetres of mercury.
A blood pressure check will give you two readings, known as ‘systolic pressure’ and ‘diastolic pressure’. Systolic is the pressure when your heart pumps blood out, while diastolic is the pressure when your heart is at rest, between beats. So, for example, if someone checks your blood pressure and says it is “112 over 73”, that means your systolic reading (always the higher number) is 112mmHg and your diastolic reading is 73mmHg. It would be written as 112/73mmHg.
If you got those figures it would be good news, as ideal blood pressure is considered to be anywhere between 90 over 60 and 120 over 80. High blood pressure (hypertension) is considered to be 140 over 90 or higher, while the less common low blood pressure (hypotension) is considered as 90 over 60 or lower.
Your blood pressure numbers can vary due to age, underlying medical conditions or outside influences such as stress, so it’s important to keep a regular check on them. If you check your own blood pressure at home and are concerned at the results you should consult your GP, especially if your numbers are high. While it often has no symptoms itself, high blood pressure can be a symptom of other conditions, which your GP will want to eliminate. It can also just be a condition in itself, not linked to anything else and known as “essential hypertension”.
Various types of medication are available to treat high blood pressure, but your doctor might also suggest lifestyle changes which could lower your blood pressure naturally and leave you not needing any medication. A healthy low-fat diet with lots of fibre and a reduced salt intake can significantly lower your blood pressure. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight will help.
Regular exercise will also reduce your blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition. If you smoke, you should stop. Although smoking doesn’t directly cause high blood pressure, it puts you at much higher risk of a heart attack or stroke, so that danger is doubled if you also have high blood pressure.
Cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, avoiding stress and getting a good night’s sleep will also all help keep your blood pressure at a healthy level. Of course, all these lifestyle changes are easier said than done, but your GP should be able to direct you to support and resources which will help you achieve them. The key thing is not to ignore blood pressure. If you haven’t had yours checked for a while, it is easy to arrange at your GP surgery or local pharmacy, or to do yourself with a home monitor.
• For more NHS information about high blood pressure, just click here.