Half of Adults Have High Blood Pressure: Do you?

John Vitarello MD
3 min readDec 30, 2022

High blood pressure, referred to as hypertension, is a medical condition that afflicts about half of Americans and yet many are unaware they have it. Staying healthy entails measuring blood pressure frequently and in cases where there is hypertension, making lifestyle changes and possibly taking medications. Untreated hypertension is responsible for many problems including heart attacks, strokes, kidney damage, and erectile dysfunction. Knowing what blood pressure numbers are abnormal and how to properly take a blood pressure can save your life.

What is a normal blood pressure?

Blood pressure is reported as two numbers in millimeters of mercury (mmhg): the systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure. The systolic number is reported first and represents the pressure when the heart is squeezing blood out to the rest of the body; hence why the number is higher. The diastolic number represents the pressure when the heart is relaxing and filling with blood. Normal blood pressure is a systolic pressure less than 120 and a diastolic pressure less than 80. If either number is higher, then blood pressure is elevated.

When does high blood pressure become hypertension?

Here comes some medical terminology. A blood pressure above 120/80mmhG is elevated. A blood pressure consistently above 130/80 is hypertension. Ever rushed from the parking lot to your doctor’s appointment and found that the pressure is high? This is why multiple blood pressure readings, both in the doctor’s office and at home, should be used to make a diagnosis of hypertension. Ideally, patients should check blood pressure in the office twice and then keep a daily log at home for at least three days.

How do I measure my blood pressure?

Measuring blood pressure seems easy, but getting accurate results requires good technique. First, rest for five minutes by sitting comfortably with your back supported and feet on the floor. Make sure the cuff fits around the mid-arm and is snug enough that no more than two fingers fit inside. When purchasing a cuff, buy an automatic machine designed to fit on the arm, rather than the wrist. Blood pressure should be checked shortly after waking, when the pressure is lowest. Keep a log to send to your doctor.

At what point do I need medication to control my blood pressure?

The answer depends on your other medical problems. For example, in a person with a history of heart attack or stroke, blood pressure medication is needed if the pressure is higher than 130/80. In patients without a history of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure lowering medication is indicated if pressures are greater than 140/90. Remember that if either the systolic or diastolic number is above these targets, blood pressure medication may be warranted. Also keep in mind that lifestyle changes have a big impact on blood pressure. These include regular exercise, weight loss, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat, salt restriction, and moderation of alcohol consumption.

Bottom Line

High blood pressure is very common but underdiagnosed and undertreated. A timely diagnosis is aided by buying your own blood pressure cuff and routinely checking. A normal blood pressure is less than 120/80mmhg. Let you doctor know if home blood pressure readings are consistently above this level.

Medical disclaimer: Although I am a physician by training, remember to always consult your doctor. All content is for educational purposes and does not constitute medical advice.

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John Vitarello MD

Cardiology Fellow @ UVA Medical Center. Creating fast reads on important Cardiology topics with a focus on prevention