High blood pressure (hypertension) affects more than one in four adults in the UK, increasing their risk of serious conditions including heart attack and stroke. One of the biggest problems with high blood pressure is that it virtually never causes any short term symptoms, so the only way to find out if you have it is to have it measured.
The first piece of good news is that taking a blood pressure reading is a really quick and easy thing for your GP or practice nurse to do; you can even do it yourself at home using a blood pressure monitor, a wide range of which are freely available at larger pharmacies or online.
The other good news is that high blood pressure can be treated, through lifestyle changes, or medication if required. We'll come back to how you can help lower your blood pressure, and the risks associated with it later. First here are some key facts about high blood pressure and tips for taking an accurate reading at home.
What is high blood pressure?
Ideal blood pressure in a healthy adult is below 120 over 80 (120/80mmHg).
Most adults in the UK have a blood pressure of between 120/80 and 140/90.
Blood pressure that is consistently* over 140/90 is considered 'high' and needs to be addressed - through diet, physical activity and other lifestyle changes and/or taking regular medication. However, anyone with a reading above 120/80 would benefit from bringing it down if possible, or at least taking steps to prevent it getting any higher.
Blood pressure of 90/60 or less is considered low. Low blood pressure isn't typically a cause for concern but see you're GP if you're at all concerned.
* Note that your blood pressure naturally varies throughout the day, and can be affected in the short term by a number of factors, including drinking caffeine, smoking, exercise, needing to use the toilet and worrying about your blood pressure! So a one-off reading that's unexpectedly high may be nothing to worry about. What's important is finding out your average reading over a number of days. If it remains high, it's worth a trip to your GP.
What do the numbers mean?
Blood pressure readings have two numbers, for example 140/90mmHg, where mmHg stands for mmHg stands for millimetres of mercury (the unit of measurement we use for blood pressure).
The top number is your systolic blood pressure (the highest pressure when your heart beats and pushes the blood round your body). The bottom one is your diastolic blood pressure (the lowest pressure when your heart relaxes between beats).
For simplicity and as in this article, people often refer just to the numbers, leaving off the 'mmHg' part.
What if only one of the numbers is higher (or lower) than it should be?
It's important to know that only one number needs to be higher or lower than it should be to count as high or low blood pressure. For example:
You may have high blood pressure if your top number is 140 or more OR your bottom number is 90 or more, regardless of the other number.
Similarly, if your top number is 90 or less OR your bottom number is 60 or less, you may have low blood pressure, regardless of the other number.
Is measuring blood pressure at home as accurate as having it done by a GP or nurse?
Home monitoring can actually be more accurate than having your blood pressure measured at your doctor's surgery because you're more likely to be relaxed in your own environment. Known as the 'white coat' effect, most of us experience a heightened level of anxiety in a medical setting - whether we realise it or not - resulting in a higher reading than you'd get at home. According to Blood Pressure UK the average increase in measurements taken by a doctor or nurse compared to those taken at home is 10mmHg in the top (systolic) number and 5mmHg in the bottom (diastolic) number. The other benefit of home monitoring is that it enables you to take readings at different times of the day and monitor your condition more easily in the long term, so you can identify what affects your reading and see for yourself the difference that changes to your diet and lifestyle can make.
If you choose to monitor your blood pressure at home, follow the tips below for the best results
Top tips for ensuring your blood pressure reading is accurate
- Before you take your readings, rest for five minutes.
- If possible, use the arm that your doctor or nurse uses when measuring your blood pressure.
- You should be sitting down in a quiet place, preferably at a desk or table, with your arm resting on a firm surface.
- Support the arm as close to heart level as possible.
- Place the feet flat on the floor and sit up straight while measuring the blood pressure.
- Avoid checking blood pressure in a cold room.
- Measure the blood pressure at a few different times during the day.
Ten top tips for achieving (or maintaining) a healthy blood pressure
Prevention is always better than cure, so whether you're suffering from high blood pressure and want to reduce it, or are looking to boost your overall wellbeing, the following steps can help you make the right choices to take control of your heart health and benefit in the long term.
1. Add flavour, not salt
Salt increases your blood pressure, so avoid adding it to your food, especially at the table. There are lots of other ways to add flavour in cooking - use a splash of red wine in stews and casseroles, sprinkle herbs, spices and a drizzle of honey on your roast vegetables, or add balsamic or rice vinegar to salads. Always check your food for salt content, especially in everyday items like cereal or bread. Find out the recommended daily salt intake for both adults and children in our article How much salt should you eat per day?
2. Lose five pounds
Weight is a big risk factor for developing high blood pressure. But losing just five pounds can make a big difference. Try swapping your frying pan for a grill when cooking meat, sprinkle dried fruit on your cereal instead of sugar, and have a glass of water instead of that sugary drink.
3. Be full of beans
Eating potassium-rich foods like white beans, dark leafy greens, tuna, bananas and potatoes (with skin on) will help your kidneys get rid of excess fluid and sodium from your bloodstream, reducing your blood pressure.
4. Walk it off
Taking regular exercise helps to lower your blood pressure and strengthen your heart. Walking, jogging, dancing, swimming or cycling are all good ways to get your recommended 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. Check out our article Health benefits of walking for more reasons to get active!
5. Take deep breaths
Stress causes temporary spikes in your blood pressure, which is best avoided, especially if your pressure is high anyway. Try a few relaxation techniques, like deep breathing. Exercise and sleep are also great ways to reduce stress. You can find more suggestions for managing stress in our Mental health hub.
6. Stick to just the limit
Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure over time. But you don't have to give up - sticking to the limit of up to 14 units for women and 21 units for men, in addition to taking an alcohol-free 'mini-break' for a couple of days midweek can be enough to reduce your health risks. For the lowdown on how alcohol affects different part of the body and tips for cutting down check out our article How much is too much?
7. Get it checked
If you don't know your blood pressure, get it checked. It's recommended that healthy adults aged over 40 should have their blood pressure checked at least once every five years. Your doctor can advise if you need any treatment or medication.
8. Stop smoking
High blood pressure reduces blood flow through your body. Smoking makes this even worse by clogging up your arteries. As soon as you stop smoking, you'll notice the health benefits, and your risk of heart disease drops dramatically within just one year. See our article for more benefits of stopping smoking.