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Easing the Pressure 

The facts behind blood pressure and what you need to know to keep yours in check.

You’re familiar with the black cuff the nurse slips on your arm every time you visit the doctor. You know you’re supposed to stay still while it inflates, squeezing your arm. And you know it’s measuring your blood pressure. But what is blood pressure anyway and why is it so important to your health?

Blood pressure is the amount of force applied to the artery walls as blood is being pumped throughout the body. It varies based on amount of blood circulated as well as the size and flexibility of the arteries. And it fluctuates throughout the day depending on activity, temperature, diet, emotional state, physical state, medication and even posture, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The Consequences of High Blood Pressure

Blood pressure tends to rise with age and nearly one in three U.S. adults has unhealthy high blood pressure, or hypertension, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Left untreated, it can lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke and kidney failure as well as other problems. Many people have high blood pressure for years without knowing it, because it typically has no symptoms. In fact, more than 20 percent of adults with high blood pressure don’t know it, according to the American Heart Association, which is why it’s so important to get regular screenings.

Get Screened

The National Institutes of Health recommend blood pressure screenings every two years for adults with normal blood pressure and every year or more for adults with elevated blood pressure.

Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) with two readings. The top number, called the systolic reading, represents the maximum pressure when the heart contracts. The bottom, or diastolic reading, represents the minimum pressure when the heart is at rest.

While more attention is usually given to the top number, or systolic reading, both numbers are important. If either is elevated, talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower it.

Get Your Blood Pressure in Check

The good news is that you can affect your blood pressure and even reverse it if it’s high. Here are a few ways to help keep your blood pressure in check:

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in sodium.
  • Exercise regularly—at least 30 minutes per day most days of the week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Find healthy outlets for stress.
  • Don’t smoke or be around others who smoke.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Talk to your doctor about medication.