What Is High Blood Pressure

Updated:Feb 8,2013
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls. High blood pressure (HBP) means the pressure in your arteries is higher than it should be. Another name for high blood pressure is hypertension. 

Blood pressure is written as two numbers, such as 112/78 mm Hg. The top, systolic, number is the pressure when the heart beats. The bottom, diastolic, number is the pressure when the heart rests between beats. Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg. If you're an adult and your systolic pressure is 120 to 139, or your diastolic pressure is 80 to 89 (or both), you have “prehypertension.” High blood pressure is a pressure of 140 systolic or higher and/or 90 diastolic or higher that stays high over time.

No one knows exactly what causes most cases of high blood pressure. It can’t be cured, but it can be managed. High blood pressure usually has no signs or symptoms. That's why it is so dangerous. 

About 76 million Americans over age 20, 1 in 3 adults, have it, and many don’t even know they have it. Not treating high blood pressure is dangerous. High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. You can live a healthier life if you treat and manage it!

Make sure you get your blood pressure checked regularly and treat it the way your doctor advises.

Who is at higher risk?
  • People with close blood relatives who have HBP
  • African Americans
  • People over age 35
  • Overweight people
  • People who aren’t physically active
  • People who consume too much salt
  • People who drink too much alcohol
  • People with diabetes, gout or kidney disease
  • Pregnant women
  • Women who take birth control pills, who are overweight, had HBP during pregnancy, have a family history of HBP or have mild kidney disease
How can I tell I have it?

You usually can’t tell! Many people have it and don’t know it. The only way to know if your blood pressure is high is to get it checked regularly by your doctor.

What can untreated high blood pressure lead to?

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack, angina or both
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney failure
  • Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
What can I do about it?
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Eat healthy meals low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt (sodium) and added sugars.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks a day for men.
  • Be more physically active. Aim for at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity, aerobic exercise each week.
  • Take medicine the way your doctor tells you.
  • Know what your blood pressure should be and work to keep it at that level.
How can medicine help?
Some medicines, such as vasodilators, help relax and open up your blood vessels so blood can flow through better. A diuretic can help keep your body from holding too much water and salt. Other medicines help your heart beat more slowly and with less force.

How can I learn more?
  1. Talk to your doctor, nurse or other healthcare professionals. If you have heart disease or have had a stroke, members of your family also may be at higher risk. It’s very important for them to make changes now to lower their risk.
  2. Call 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721), or visit heart.org to learn more about heart disease.
  3. For information on stroke, call 1-888-4-STROKE (1-888-478-7653) or visit us online at StrokeAssociation.org.
We have many other fact sheets and educational booklets to help you make healthier choices to reduce your risk, manage disease or care for a loved one. Visit heart.org/answersbyheart to learn more.

Knowledge is power, so Learn and Live!

Do you have questions or comments for your doctor or nurse?

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

Will I always have to take medicine?

What should my blood pressure be?

©2012, American Heart Association

Multi-language Fact Sheet Topics

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What Is Atrial Fibrillation?
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What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?
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?
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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?
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Stroke, Recovery and Caregiving
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Ischemic Stroke
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Stroke Diagnosis
Changes Caused by Stroke
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Feeling Tired After a Stroke
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Stroke Family Caregivers
How Should I Care for Myself as a Caregiver?

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Why Should I Limit Sodium?
How Do I Read "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?