Making Sense of Your Blood Pressure Numbers

Content Producer
View as:|
1 of 8

Whether you’ve gone to get your annual check-up or if you’re tracking your blood pressure, understanding what your blood pressure readings mean can sometimes be confusing. Here, courtesy of the American Heart Association, is what you need to know to start understanding your blood pressure numbers. (All images credit: Thinkstock)

To begin

Blood pressure is usually recorded as a ratio, with one number on top and one number on the bottom, each representing two different things.

The top number

The top number is the systolic blood pressure and represents the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. If this number is higher than 120, you’re at risk for high blood pressure.

The bottom number

The bottom number is the diastolic blood pressure and measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats. If this number is higher than 80, you’re at risk for high blood pressure.

What is a healthy number?

According to the American Heart Association’s recommendations, a normal ratio would be a systolic (top number) that is less than 120 and a diastolic (bottom number) that is less than 80. Prehypertension would be measured as a top number between 120 to 139 OR a bottom number between 80 to 89. Anything higher and you may officially be in the hypertension stage.

Is one reading enough?

Simply put, no. If an initial blood pressure reading is higher than normal, over time your doctor may take several more readings or ask you to monitor your blood pressure at home before officially diagnosing you with high blood pressure.

The top number may mean a bit more than the bottom

How high the top number, the systolic blood pressure, is serves as a major risk factor for heart disease for people over the age of 50. The systolic blood pressure rises with age because of age-related stiffening of arteries and plaque build-up, as well as increased chances of cardiac and vascular disease.

So you’ve been officially diagnosed with high blood pressure – now what?

On top of feeling distressed about your diagnosis, you might be feeling lost on where to start to turn things around. Start by learning all you can about high blood pressure, like how low you exactly have to go, and focus on lifestyle changes like diet and exercise. We have tons of tips to help you get on track.