Blood Pressure: How High Is Too High?

In November of 2017, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology released new guidelines on high blood pressure, or hypertension, stating that the cutoff for diagnosis is now 130/80. (Previously, the cutoff was 140/90.)

As a result of this change, millions of people with blood pressures that were previously considered normal, like 134/82, now meet the clinical definition for high blood pressure. Under the current guidelines, even a blood pressure with the top number in the 120s is considered to be “elevated,” which means it carries a higher risk for heart disease and death.

CATEGORY Systolic  (upper number) Diastolic (lower number)
Normal Less than 120 and Less than 80
Elevated 120 – 129 and Less than 80
High Blood Pressure Stage 1 130 – 139 or 80 – 89
High Blood Pressure Stage 2 140 or higher or 90 or higher
Hypertensive Crisis (consult doctor immediately) Higher than 180 and/or Higher than 120

Source: American Heart Association

High blood pressure is common, affecting 116 million Americans.

Under the current guidelines, 30% of men and 19% of women under age 45 have high blood pressure. If you don’t have it, you likely will sooner or later: Nearly 90% of U.S. adults develop high blood pressure during their lifetimes.

The scary part is how dangerous the condition can be over time. Often described as a “silent killer,” high blood pressure doesn’t always cause symptoms, which is why having your blood pressure checked is vital. Untreated high blood pressure can lead to heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, heart attack, and even death.

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Proven Strategies for Lowering Blood Pressure Naturally

If you are diagnosed as having high blood pressure, you may not need blood pressure medications immediately. Whether you need medication depends on how high your blood pressure is, if you have other diseases (like kidney disease or diabetes), and your long-term risk for having complications from high blood pressure.

More importantly, basic lifestyle changes can help prevent or reverse high blood pressure for many people. The most important changes to make include the following:

  • Lose weight

    Every kilogram of body weight you lose can reduce your blood pressure by one point. (A kilogram is about 2.2 pounds.)

  • Exercise regularly

    Aim for 90 to 150 minutes of exercise per week. Aerobic exercise appears to have the largest impact.

  • Limit alcohol

    Avoid drinking more than two drinks daily for men and one drink daily for women.

  • Limit salt

    Avoid adding salt to foods and eating processed foods, which can also be high in sodium. (Be sure to read nutrition labels.)

  • Eat more plant-based

    Plants are naturally high in potassium (which lowers blood pressure), high in fiber, and low in salt. Animal-based foods like dairy and meat raise blood pressure, by comparison.

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Lifestyle Changes Are an Effective Tool

These interventions can be effective depending on the magnitude of the lifestyle change. In one study, 76% of participants who followed a vegan diet for one year were able to discontinue or drastically reduce their medications. However, adhering to these seemingly simple changes can be difficult.

Nevertheless, many of these “lifestyle interventions” are routine for traditional societies that generally have low rates of hypertension. High blood pressure is not a natural part of the human aging process. For example, populations in rural China and rural Africa do not have age-related increases in blood pressure, although this is rapidly changing as Western habits percolate globally.

Immigrants to Western countries develop an increased risk of high blood pressure after arriving, which only continues to rise as more time is spent in the West. This pattern is thought to be caused by adopting a Western diet and decreasing physical activity. Changes in lifestyle can undoubtedly raise—–or lower—–your blood pressure.

Even though statistics say you will probably develop high blood pressure during your lifetime, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.