Are my blood pressure levels healthy? A doctor’s guide

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi
Keeping your blood pressure levels in check could save your life. Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi, shares a simple guide to understanding your blood pressure

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Maintaining a healthy blood pressure is an essential part of looking after your body. High blood pressure, also called hypertension, increases your risk of serious conditions like a heart attack, heart failure, stroke and kidney damage.

Approximately 1.13 billion people worldwide have high blood pressure and it’s a major cause of premature death globally, but fewer than 1 in 5 of those who suffer with it have the issue under control.

‘Monitoring your blood pressure levels – and taking action if they rise too high – is important for reducing your risk of complications and staying healthier for longer,’ says Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi.

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is a measure of the force of blood in the arteries as it’s pumped around the body by the heart. Blood pressure and heart rate are two separate measurements. ‘Your heart rate measures how quickly your heart is beating to pump blood, while your blood pressure measures the pressure within your arteries,’ says Dr McClymont.

Your blood pressure will naturally fluctuate throughout the day and night. It becomes more of a concern when your overall blood pressure is consistently high, even while resting.

What is normal blood pressure?

As a general guide, according to Dr McClymont:

  • Optimal blood pressure is considered to be between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg
  • High blood pressure is considered to be 140/90mmHg or higher. For people over 80, this threshold rises to 150/90mmHg or higher
  • Low blood pressure, known as hypotension, is considered to be 90/60mmHg or lower

What causes high blood pressure?

If you suffer from hypertension, it means your heart is having to work harder to pump blood around your body. For most people, there isn’t always one particular cause of high blood pressure, but there are several key risk factors, including:

  • Drinking too much alcohol or caffeine
  • Being overweight
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Not exercising enough
  • Smoking
  • Having a family history of hypertension

Sometimes high blood pressure is the consequence of another underlying medical condition. This is known as secondary hypertension. For example, an excessive production of hormones from the adrenal glands can cause high blood pressure. Conditions that cause secondary hypertension include:

  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Obstructive sleep apnoea
  • Pregnancy

What are the signs of high blood pressure to look out for?

‘Usually, high blood pressure doesn’t have any symptoms, which is why it’s important to measure it frequently,’ explains Dr McClymont. ‘Some people may experience headaches, nosebleeds, blurred vision, chest pain, shortness of breath or dizziness.’

What are the long-term effects of high blood pressure?

‘If high blood pressure isn’t controlled long term, it can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems, such as heart failure, peripheral arterial disease, strokes and heart attacks, as well as issues like kidney disease and certain types of dementia,’ Dr McClymont says.

This is because high blood pressure puts an extra strain on your heart, blood vessels and other organs, including the brain, eyes and kidneys.

Managing high blood pressure

These simple lifestyle changes can help lower your blood pressure levels:

1. Maintain a healthy weight As your weight increases, your blood pressure tends to rise too, so maintaining a healthy weight can help with managing healthy blood pressure levels. A high waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) may also indicate a higher risk.

2. Eat more fruit, vegetables and wholegrains Studies show that the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and Mediterranean diets can help manage blood pressure as well as cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease. Both diets are rich in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, and low in saturated fat and red meat.

3. Reduce your salt intake Too much salt can raise your blood pressure. You should be eating no more than 6g (around 1 tsp) a day.

4. Fit more exercise into your day Regular exercise is important because it keeps your blood vessels and heart healthy. Activities that are good for your blood pressure include cycling, swimming, dancing, gardening, tennis and jogging. There’s strong evidence that a 30-minute walk each morning may be as effective at lowering blood pressure as taking medication.

5. Cut down on alcohol The recommended healthy limit of alcohol per week is less than 14 units. One review found that high blood pressure was rapidly reversed when heavy drinkers reduced their intake by about 50%.

6. Give up smoking Like high blood pressure, smoking causes your arteries to narrow, which dramatically increases your risk of heart attack or stroke. By giving up, you’ll lower your risk of disease.

What about low blood pressure?

‘Low blood pressure can cause symptoms such as light-headedness, blurred vision and feeling faint, sick or weak. It’s common to have lower blood pressure in pregnancy, and some people also develop it as a side effect to certain medications or other medical conditions,’ says Dr McClymont.

Low blood pressure doesn’t always cause symptoms, and treatment depends on the cause. Certain things can help ease symptoms, including:

  • Wearing support stockings to increase blood pressure and improve circulation
  • Increasing the amount of water you drink, because when you’re dehydrated your blood pressure drops
  • Eating small meals frequently, as larger meals are associated with a drop in blood pressure

‘Low blood pressure is more common in younger people, but it can sometimes develop in older people too,’ Dr McClymont says.

How is blood pressure measured?

Blood pressure is measured with a device called a sphygmomanometer (pronounced ‘svig-mo-man-ometer’) through a cuff, which is wrapped around your upper arm. ‘This cuff is inflated – either manually with a handheld device by a doctor or automatically via an electronic machine,’ explains Dr McClymont.

The test should ideally be taken sitting down, with your arm relaxed and resting on a table at the same level as your heart. ‘It’s best to sit quietly for a few minutes before taking the blood pressure reading to get the most accurate result,’ Dr McClymont says.

Understanding your blood pressure reading

Your blood pressure is measured with two numbers in millimetres of mercury (mmHg). ‘The top number is called the “systolic” – this measures the force with which blood is pumped around your body,’ explains Dr McClymont. ‘The bottom number is known as the “diastolic” – this number represents the resistance to this blood flow within the blood vessels.’

For example, if you’re told that your blood pressure is 120 over 80 (written as 120/80), it shows you have a systolic pressure of 120mmHg and a diastolic pressure of 80mmHg.

After taking a test, you can use a blood pressure chart to see what your readings mean. You can also enter your readings into this NHS calculator to find out what they mean.

Where can you get blood pressure checked?

You can get your blood pressure checked at several places, including GP surgeries, some pharmacies or at home with an automatic blood pressure machine.

Your blood pressure may rise due to the anxiety of being in a healthcare setting, a problem known as ‘white coat hypertension’. ‘If you suffer from this, it’s best to take the test at home to get a more accurate reading,’ recommends Dr McClymont.

See a GP about blood pressure

If you have any concerns about your blood pressure, you should arrange an appointment with a doctor for a check-up.

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