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What Do the Numbers Mean and Why Do They Matter?

TUESDAY, May 2, 2023 (American Heart Association News) — It’s a standard part of any medical visit. Someone, typically a nurse, wraps a cuff around your arm and asks you to sit quietly while the cuff squeezes to the point of discomfort, then slowly eases its grip. Some numbers get jotted down in your chart.

What does that even mean?

“The top number – the systolic – tells us how much pressure there is from blood pushing against the walls of your arteries when the heart beats,” said Dr. Niteesh Choudhry, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a hospitalist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “The bottom number – known as diastolic – is the amount of pressure from blood pushing against the artery walls when the heart is at rest” between heartbeats.

When either number is too high for too long, “it causes all kinds of bad things,” Choudhry said. That can include strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure and other chronic illnesses. “High blood pressure is a major cardiovascular risk factor, leading to bad outcomes in the heart and brain, and that’s why it’s gotten so much attention for so long.”

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Nearly half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, or hypertension. Because there are often no symptoms, if people aren’t checking for it, many don’t know they have it.

According to the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, a normal blood pressure for adults is a systolic measurement of less than 120 mmHg and a diastolic reading under 80 mmHg. Blood pressure is elevated when the systolic consistently reaches 120-129 mmHg and the diastolic is less than 80 mmHg. It is considered stage 1 hypertension when systolic blood pressure consistently hits 130-139 mmHg or

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