Virginia Tech® home

Blood Pressure Resources

picture of a heart with a ekg line in the background

Blood Pressure is the force of blood flowing through your blood vessels. It is measured by a device that calculates the systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) pressures in the arteries.

Your blood pressure numbers and what they mean:

  • Systolic blood pressure (the top number) — indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when the heart beats.
  • Diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) — indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.

Which number is more important?

Typically, more attention is given to systolic blood pressure as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over 50. In most people, systolic blood pressure rises steadily with age due to the increasing stiffness of large arteries, long-term build-up of plaque and an increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease.

However, elevated systolic or diastolic blood pressure alone may be used to make a diagnosis of high blood pressure. And, according to recent studies, the risk of death from ischemic heart disease and stroke doubles with every 20 mmHg systolic or 10 mmHg diastolic increase among people from age 40 to 89.

Blood Pressure Catagories

The five blood pressure ranges as recognized by the American Heart Association are:

Blood pressure numbers are within the normal (optimal) range of less than 120/80 mmHg. Heart-healthy habits like following a balanced diet and getting regular exercise can help maintain normal blood pressure.

Elevated blood pressure is when readings are consistently ranging from 120-129 systolic and less than 80 mmHg diastolic. People with elevated blood pressure are likely to develop high blood pressure unless steps are taken to control it.

Hypertension Stage 1 is blood pressure that is consistently ranging from 130-139 systolic or 80-89 mmHg 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 heart attack or stroke.

Hypertension Stage 2 is blood pressure that is consistently ranging at levels of 140/90 mmHg or higher. At this stage of high blood pressure, doctors are likely to prescribe a combination of blood pressure medications along with lifestyle changes.

This is high blood pressure that requires medical attention. If your blood pressure readings suddenly exceed 180/120 mmHg, wait five minutes and test again. If your reading are still unusually high, contact your doctor immediately. You could be experiencing a hypertensive crisis. If your blood pressure is higher than 180/120 mmHg and you are experiencing signs of possible organ damage such as chest pain, shortness of breath, back pain, numbness/weakness, change in vision, difficulty speaking, do not wait to see if your pressure comes down on its own. Call 911.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure or hypertension is when your blood pressure is consistently too high. Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure and many do not even know they have it.

High blood pressure is a "silent killer" because most of the time there are no obvious symptoms. Certain physical traits and lifestyle choices can put you at greater risk for high blood pressure.

Left undetected or uncontrolled, high blood pressure can lead to:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney disease or failure
  • Vision loss
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Angina
  • Peripheral artery disease

Making lifestyle changes and using medication can enhance your quality of life and reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke, and more.

Make changes that matter:

  • Know your numbers: Get your blood pressure checked
  • Eat a well-balanced diet that is low in salt
  • Limit alcohol
  • Enjoy regular physical activity
  • Manage stress
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking
  • Take your medications properly
  • Work together with your doctor

Reference: American Heart Association

For more information, visit the CDC webpage on blood pressure.