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Blood Pressure: What Those Numbers Mean

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When your doctor takes your blood pressure, the results are indicated in two numbers. The top number is your systolic pressure, the level of tension in your blood vessels during each heartbeat. The bottom number is your diastolic pressure, the measurement when your heart is at rest, between beats. In the past, a blood pressure of 120/80 was considered optimal, and anything up to 139/89 was considered "high normal." But today experts advise us to aim for even lower blood pressure to ensure heart health.

"Blood pressure is now considered to be normal when it is 115 to 120 over 70," says cardiologist Stephen Siegel, MD, clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City. Meanwhile, the upper limit of normal, says Siegel, is between 120 and 139 over 80 to 89. We now call this 'prehypertensive,'" he tells WebMD, and it's a time when pro-active measures to bring pressure down should begin. The damage associated with high blood pressure doesn't start when the diagnosis is made. It usually begins 10 to 15 years before. So it's important to view these pre-disease states, like prehypertension, as an opportunity to intervene and maybe dramatically change that person's future health outlook," says Siegel.

Indeed, an 18-year study from the Annals of Family Medicine reports that prehypertension increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, even after consideration of other contributing factors, such as smoking. In a second study published in the journal Stroke, doctors say that those with prehypertension are three times more likely to have a heart attack and 1.7 times more likely to have heart disease than those who blood pressure is under 120/80. The study also contends that if prehypertension could be treated, 47% of all heart attacks could be avoided.

Need another reason to take action early? Experts in high blood pressure report that heart disease risk, beginning at a blood pressure of 115/75, doubles with each increment of 20/10.

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