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Learning you have high blood pressure

It's a serious condition, but it's not all bad news. There's a lot you can do to stay healthy.

High blood pressure: Those are three troublesome words to hear from your doctor. But if you do hear them, don't fear. Just remember these three facts:

  1. It's a good thing you found out.
  2. You're not alone.
  3. There are lots of things you can do to bring high blood pressure down.

Why it's good to know

High blood pressure, or hypertension, doesn't have symptoms in its early stages, says Daniel Jones, MD, a past president of the American Heart Association (AHA). Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure, according to the AHA. But with no symptoms, it can be hard to know you have it. 

You might not know yourself, if not for the test you had. So it's a good thing you're aware. Now you can put that knowledge into action and take steps to protect your health.

Blood pressure facts

Now that you've been diagnosed, here's what you need to know about hypertension.

Blood pressure refers to the force of blood pushing against your blood vessel walls. It's measured in two numbers: systolic, which is listed first, and diastolic, which is listed second. Systolic is the pressure when your heart beats, and diastolic is the pressure between beats.

Blood pressure is considered normal when it's below 120/80 mm Hg. People with a systolic level of 120 to 129 systolic—and a normal diastolic level—are considered to have elevated blood pressure. Hypertension stage 1 means you have a systolic pressure of 130 to 139 or a diastolic pressure of 80 to 89. Hypertension stage 2 means you have a systolic pressure of 140 or higher or a diastolic pressure of 90 or higher.

Pressure that's too high boosts the workload of your heart and arteries, increasing your risk for clogging of the arteries, heart attack, heart failure and stroke.

Taking steps to bring your levels down, however, reduces your risk for all of these problems.

Getting it under control

Treating hypertension is usually a collaborative effort between you and your healthcare provider, Dr. Jones says.

"You'll come up with a management plan appropriate for you," he says.

In most cases, the plan will include making lifestyle changes such as:

Managing your weight. If you're overweight or obese, losing weight helps reduce strain on your heart.

Eating better and limiting salt. Too much salt, or sodium, in your diet can boost blood pressure. Avoid sodium-filled food, and cut back on the amount of salt you use in cooking. Your doctor also may advise following the DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diet, Dr. Jones says. This is an eating plan designed to bring down blood pressure levels. It stresses choosing a diet that's low in saturated fat and added sugar but high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Keeping fit. Regular exercise can reduce both systolic and diastolic levels by about five to eight points, the American College of Sports Medicine reports. Even if that's not enough to bring your pressure to normal levels, staying fit can offer other health benefits such as weight control and a reduced risk for heart attack and stroke. Get your doctor's advice on incorporating exercise into your life.

Not smoking. Nicotine from cigarettes causes blood vessels to narrow and your heart to beat faster, boosting your blood pressure and your risk for heart attack and stroke. Your doctor can recommend a stop-smoking program and prescribe medications to help you quit.


"Some people can control blood pressure simply by making lifestyle changes," Dr. Jones says. "But others also may need to take medications."

There are several types of blood pressure-lowering medications. If necessary, your doctor will prescribe one appropriate for you.

If you're prescribed a medicine, use it as directed and don't stop using it without talking to your doctor first. Sometimes it takes several weeks for your body to adjust before a medicine starts working well.

More tips

The AHA offers these further suggestions for keeping blood pressure under control:

Know your numbers. Get your blood pressure checked regularly so you can monitor how well your management plan is working. Your doctor can tell you how often to get your levels checked.

Keep doctor appointments. Regular doctor visits are part of staying healthy. Let your doctor know how you're doing in terms of lifestyle changes. Voice any questions you have.

Live life! While you may need to make a few adjustments, having high blood pressure shouldn't get in the way living an enjoyable life. Stay positive.

"Hypertension is a serious condition, but there's so much you can do to control it. Knowing that should help put you at ease," Dr. Jones says.

reviewed 12/17/2019

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