The down low on high blood pressure

Blood pressure is routinely checked by GPs, but what does it mean when it’s high or low – and what can you do it about it?

Dr Mel Smith, of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, gives the lowdown on the health risks associated with blood pressure and the steps we can take to prevent hypertension.

Hypertension v hypotension

They sound similar, but these two words actually refer to opposite ends of the blood pressure level spectrum.

Hypertension refers to high blood pressure, while hypotension describes low pressure.

The reason hypertension is more widely discussed is because high blood pressure has far more health complications than low blood pressure.

“Having persistent high blood pressure increases the strain on your heart and blood vessels throughout your body,” says Dr Smith.

High blood pressure is often referred to as a “silent killer” because its symptoms tend to be disregarded, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, blurred vision and nausea.

“(Hypertension) can affect many different organs and increases the risk of them becoming weaker, damaged or stop working altogether,” says Dr Smith.

“Most of the time you can’t feel any specific symptoms of hypertension but it can damage your kidneys, your eyes and contribute to heart attacks and dementia.”

GPs routinely check blood pressure is because it often serves as a precursor for serious – potentially fatal – health complications.

“High blood pressure can cause you to have a stroke or block arteries in your arms and legs,” says Dr Smith.

“If you also smoke, have diabetes or high cholesterol, this increases the risks of these problems even further and it is even more important to reduce high pressure.”

What is a ‘normal’ blood pressure?

Healthy blood pressure levels can vary depending on the individual.

“Generally we aim for patients to have a blood pressure less than 140/90 mmHg. Hypertension is defined as a blood pressure above this,” says Dr Smith.

“For some patients who are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, we may aim for a lower target systolic blood pressure of less than 120 mmHg, while an ideal blood pressure range is around 90-120 mmHg systolic and 60-80 mmHg diastolic.”

What do systolic and diastolic mean?

Systolic blood pressure is the first or “top” number you’ll hear when talking about blood pressure.

It represents the highest pressure when your heart beats and squeezes to push blood around your body through your arteries, says Dr Smith.

The diastolic blood pressure – the second or “bottom” number – is the lowest pressure when the heart relaxes between contractions/beats.

Dr Mel Smith’s top six ways to lower blood pressure

“The best ways to reduce blood pressure, or keep it in the normal range, are to look at your lifestyle,” says Dr Smith.

She recommends:

  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce alcohol
  • Lose weight
  • Eat more whole foods, especially fresh veggies and lean meats
  • Reduce salt intake
  • Exercise

Want to keep the pressure down? Learn more about salt’s role in heart health, how to adopt a heart-friendly Mediterranean diet and how mini workouts cut your risk of disease.

Written by Charlotte Brundrett.