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blood pressure numbers explained

Most of us have had our blood pressure taken at some point in our lives. And we’ve all heard doctors describing patients as having ‘BP 160 over 95’. But what does that mean, and why is a reading like that bad news?

Your blood pressure can be a good indication of your overall health, and is one of the things checked at a health assessment. High blood pressure (‘hypertension’) is far more common in the Western world than low blood pressure (‘hypotension’), although both can be indicative of an underlying medical condition.

Taking your blood pressure

A simple blood pressure test is all that’s required and takes very little time. If your blood pressure reading is high, you normally have to have a second test a week or more later. This is because lots of things can cause an inaccurate reading, including stress, physical exertion or the time of day. If you’ve rushed to reach your appointment, or are having a bad day, this can artificially elevate your blood pressure. An ambulatory blood pressure recording can give you an accurate reading over the course of 24 hours instead.

When you get your results, they’re expressed as two readings:

  • The first figure, your ‘systolic’ blood pressure, is the pressure at which blood leaves your heart when it pumps.
  • The second figure, ‘diastolic’, is the pressure at which your blood moves when your heart pauses between beats.

What is an ideal blood pressure?

Systolic blood pressure between 90 and 119, and diastolic pressure between 60 and 79 is the ideal blood pressure (a range expressed in shorthand as 90/60 to 119/79).

Anything above 140/90 is considered to be high blood pressure.

If your reading is somewhere between the ideal range and the high figures, you may be at risk of developing high blood pressure in the future, and should consider making changes to your lifestyle to prevent this.

Only one of your readings needs to be high to signal that you have high blood pressure.

Consequences of a high reading

Prolonged high blood pressure can put a strain on your arteries and organs. It often occurs when the arteries become congested with plaque caused by cholesterol or smoking. It affects one in four adults in the UK1, although many don’t know it – because it often shows no symptoms until something potentially major happens, like a heart attack or stroke.

Treating high or low blood pressure

Eat less saltIf you have high blood pressure, there is lots you can do to reduce it. Medications can help, but switching to a healthier lifestyle and diet can often be equally as effective. Here are just a few things you can do to bring your readings down and reduce your blood pressure to a healthy level:

  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce the amount of salt in your diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Cut back on caffeine
  • Tackle the causes of your stress

Low blood pressure is less serious and far less common but is possible. It usually requires no treatment but very low blood pressure is rare and can restrict blood flow to your brain and vital organs. You may feel dizzy or unsteady on your feet, and may faint. Treatments include raising your salt intake, increased hydration and eating more frequently.


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