Your Questions About Blood Pressure Results—Answered

By Willow Jarosh, R.D., and Stephanie Clarke, R.D.

Q: What exactly do the numbers on my blood-pressure results mean?

A: To best understand what those numbers reveal, it helps to have a little background on what’s happening in your body first. Let’s start with the basics:

Two things happen with each heartbeat: During the contraction, the heart pushes blood out; during the relaxation, blood flows in. When the blood leaves your heart, it moves into your arteries and then into a series of blood vessels that travel all over your body. (This is how cells—from your toes to your brain—get the oxygen that they need.) One of the things your doctor measures when she puts on that cuff is the pressure of the blood against the vessels during this “contraction” phase. It’s called your systolic blood pressure—and it’s the top number in your blood-pressure reading. The bottom number reflects your diastolic blood pressure, or the pressure of the blood during the relaxation phase.

Ideally, doctors want us to keep our readings below 120/80. That’s because when blood pressure starts to rise, it can actually damage the cells that line your vessels, causing them to become stiff. This can make you more susceptible to atherosclerosis, and the damage can harm organs (since they depend on healthy blood flow) and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke because clots are more likely to form. High blood pressure also causes your heart to work harder than it was meant to, which can lead to an enlarged heart and heart failure. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to help keep your blood pressure in check, including losing weight, exercising and quitting smoking.


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