Let's Talk About High Blood Pressure and Stroke

Updated:Nov 17,2017

What is high blood pressure (HBP)?
High blood pressure means that the force of the blood pushing against the sides of your arteries is consistently in the high range. This can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure or kidney failure.

Two numbers represent blood pressure. The higher (systolic) number shows the pressure while the heart is beating. The lower (diastolic) number shows the pressure when the heart is resting between beats. The systolic number is always listed first. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).

Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg. If you're an adult and your systolic pressure is 120 to 129, and your diastolic pressure is less than 80, you have elevated blood pressure. High blood pressure is a pressure of 130 systolic or higher, or 80 diastolic or higher, that stays high over time.

How does high blood pressure increase stroke risk?
High blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for stroke because it’s the leading cause of stroke.

HBP adds to your heart’s workload and damages your arteries and organs over time. Compared to people whose blood pressure is normal, people with HBP are more likely to have a stroke.

About 87 percent of strokes are caused by narrowed or clogged blood vessels in the brain that cut off the blood flow to brain cells. This is an ischemic stroke. High blood pressure causes damage to the inner lining of the blood vessels. This adds to any blockage that is already within the artery wall.

About 13 percent of strokes occur when a blood vessel ruptures in or near the brain. This is a hemorrhagic stroke. Chronic HBP or aging blood vessels are the main causes of this type of stroke. HBP puts more pressure on the blood vessels until they can no longer maintain the pressure and the blood vessel ruptures over time.

Am I at higher risk for HBP?
There are risk factors that increase your chances of developing HBP. Some you can control, and some you can’t.

Those that can be controlled are:

  • Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Diabetes
  • Being obese or overweight
  • High cholesterol
  • Unhealthy diet (high in sodium, low in potassium, and drinking too much alcohol)
  • Physical inactivity

Factors that cannot be modified or are difficult to control are:

  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Increasing age
  • Gender (males)
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Obstructive sleep apnea

Socioeconomic status and psychosocial stress are also risk factors for HBP.  These can affect access to basic living necessities, medication, healthcare providers, and the ability to adopt lifestyle changes.

How can I control high blood pressure?

  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Eat a healthy diet that’s low in sodium (salt), saturated fat and trans fat.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Include foods rich in potassium.
  • Enjoy regular physical activity.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks a day if you’re a man and one drink a day if you’re a woman.
  • Take all medicines as prescribed to control your pressure.

How can I learn more?

  1. Call 1-888-4-STROKE (1-888-478-7653) to learn more about stroke or find local support groups, or visit StrokeAssociation.org.
  2. Sign up to get Stroke Connection magazine, a free magazine for stroke survivors and caregivers at strokeconnection.org.
  3. Connect with others sharing similar journeys with stroke by joining our Support Network at strokeassociation.org/supportnetwork.

We have many other fact sheets to help you make healthier choices to reduce your risk, manage disease or care for a loved one. Visit strokeassociation.org/letstalkaboutstroke to learn more. 

Do you have questions for your doctor or nurse?

Take a few minutes to write your questions for the next time you see your healthcare provider:

What should my blood pressure be?

How often should my blood pressure be checked?

©2017, American Heart Association


Multi-language Fact Sheet Topics

Heart-related Conditions
What is Angina?
What is an Arrhythmia?
What Is Atrial Fibrillation?
What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?
How Can I Improve My Cholesterol?
What Are High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides?
What Is High Blood Pressure?
How Can I Reduce High Blood Pressure?
High Blood Pressure and Stroke
What Is Diabetes and How Can I Manage It?
How Can I Live With Heart Failure?
What Is Heart Failure?
What Is a Heart Attack?
How Will I Recover From My Heart Attack?
What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Attack?
What Are Heart Disease and Stroke?
What is Metabolic Syndrome?
What is Peripheral Vascular Disease?

Stroke, Recovery and Caregiving
Hemorrhagic Stroke
Ischemic Stroke
Stroke, TIA and Warning Signs
What Are the Warning Signs of Stroke?
Stroke Risk Factors
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Stroke
Stroke Diagnosis
Complications After Stroke
Changes Caused by Stroke
Emotional Changes After Stroke
Feeling Tired After a Stroke
Stroke and Aphasia
Stroke and Rehabilitation
Stroke Family Caregivers
How Should I Care for Myself as a Caregiver?

Treatment, Tests and Procedures
What is Cholesterol-Lowering Medicine?
What is High Blood Pressure Medicine?
What Are Anticoagulants and Antiplatelet Agents?
How Do I Manage My Medicines?
What Is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator?
What Is a Pacemaker?
What Is Coronary Angioplasty?
What is a Stent?
What is Coronary Bypass Surgery?
What is a Coronary Angiogram?
How Can I Recover From Heart Surgery?
What is Carotid Endarterectomy?

Healthy Lifestyle and Risk Reduction
How Can I Manage My Weight?
How Can Physical Activity Become a Way of Life?
Why Should I Be Physically Active?
How Do I Follow a Healthy Diet?
How Can I Cook Healthfully?
Why Should I Limit Sodium?
How Do I Understand "Nutrition Facts" Labels?
How Can I Quit Smoking?
How Can I Manage Stress?
How Can I Make My Lifestyle Healthier?
How Can I Monitor My Cholesterol, Blood Pressure and Weight?