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What Is Blood Pressure?

Woman has blood pressure checked

Blood pressure is simply the pressure of blood in your blood vessels as it is pumped around your body. 

You need a certain amount of pressure to circulate blood around the body. A blood pressure reading records two numbers: the pressure of blood as your heart contracts (systolic pressure) and the pressure of blood when your heart relaxes and fills before the next beat (diastolic pressure). The first number will always be higher.

Your blood pressure will change throughout the day. It adjusts in response to your posture, exertion and emotional state, and tends to be highest in the morning and lowest in the evening.

What your blood pressure reading means

Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury: mmHg.

A normal blood pressure for adults is 140/90 mmHg or lower. However, if you have diabetes, heart disease or chronic kidney disease, a reading around 130/80mmHg or under is desirable.

High blood pressure (or hypertension) is when you have a reading that is consistently 140/90mmHg or higher. A high reading indicates that your heart is having to work harder to pump blood due to the increased pressure in the system. This can strain your heart, damage your blood vessels, and increase your chances of a stroke or heart attack.

A low blood pressure is one that is 90/60mmHg or lower. This does not necessarily indicate you have a problem. In some case it is related to a medical condition, such as diabetes or postural hypotension. However, there is usually no need to treat low blood pressure.

How to measure blood pressure

You can get your blood pressure checked by your GP. Alternatively, drop in to any LloydsPharmacy for a free blood pressure check.

The test itself will involve using a blood pressure monitor with an inflatable cuff that is placed around your arm. It’s a quick and painless test, although you might feel slight discomfort as the cuff inflates. It is important to be in a relaxed and calm state as your blood pressure is being checked.

There are also a range of home blood pressure monitors on the market, so that you can keep an eye on your blood pressure when it’s convenient for you. However, you should still get your blood pressure checked by a medical professional.

Adults diagnosed with hypertension should check their blood pressure at least every 9 months. Adults over 40 years old should be checked annually, and women on the combined contraceptive pill will need regularly blood pressure checks, usually once every 6 months.

Problems associated with blood pressure

Although blood pressure fluctuates naturally throughout the day, problems can occur when your blood pressure is consistently outside of the optimal blood pressure range for your age group. Generally, the higher your blood pressure, the higher your risk of developing complications.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure is very common in the UK; one in three adults in England and Scotland have it. Although it can affect anyone, high blood pressure becomes increasingly more common with age.

The increased pressure on blood vessel walls causes damage. This in turn can lead to the trapping of cholesterol and fats, and lead to blockages (atherosclerosis). This increases your risk of blood clots, stroke, heart attacks and coronary heart disease. High blood pressure also puts strain on the kidneys.

Low blood pressure

Low blood pressure is generally not a cause for concern in adults under 70 years old. It can occur naturally or as a result of taking certain medications. In some cases, it can be the result of an underlying health problem which may require treatment.

If you have low blood pressure, you may experience feeling light-headed or faint, nauseous, having blurred vision or weak. These symptoms may occur most commonly when you stand up or change position quickly, especially when going from lying down to standing.

If such symptoms are troublesome, it is important that you see your doctor for further assessment.

What affects blood pressure

Your genetic makeup, age and lifestyle choices can all affect your blood pressure.

  • Family history: a family history of high blood pressure puts you at greater risk of developing it. Along with kidney and heart problems, high blood pressure also goes hand-in-hand with diabetes – around 60% of diabetics have the condition.
  • Ethnic background: In the UK, those with an African-Caribbean or South Asian background are also statistically more likely to have high blood pressure. Anyone from either of these ethnic groups is especially encouraged to have their blood pressure monitored.
  • Age: the likelihood of developing high blood pressure increases with age, mainly due to the ageing and loss of flexibility in your arteries. High blood pressure for those aged 60 or over is usually classed as a consistent reading of 150/90mmHg or more.
  • Medication: certain medications can also cause blood pressure to rise, particularly the combined contraceptive pill for women and asthma medicines.
  • Lifestyle choices: A sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and eating too much salt can all raise your blood pressure. Excessive stress and emotional strain can lend a hand in this process. 

Luckily, you can actively control and change lifestyle choices in order to reduce your blood pressure. Even if your blood pressure is relatively normal, you should still consider keeping an eye on your habits and lifestyle choices to improve your health and well-being.

Can blood pressure be controlled?

Alongside making the lifestyle changes stated above, blood pressure can also be controlled by the use of medication.

High blood pressure treatment is usually long-term and aims to keep your blood pressure within the safe limits relevant to your age group.

Any medication to control your blood pressure will be prescribed by your doctor, and you should not stop taking the treatment without doctor approval.

High blood pressure in women

Blood pressure is intricately linked to a woman’s contraceptive choices.

Combined contraceptive pill

The combined contraceptive pill, which contains oestrogen, can cause a rise in blood pressure. Blood pressure is particularly likely to increase in those who are taking the pill for the first time or changing to a different combined contraceptive pill. You should always have your blood pressure checked regularly in person by a medical professional if you are taking the pill. Depending on your blood pressure, you may need to change the type of contraceptive you are using.

After the menopause

Blood pressure also tends to rise in post-menopausal women. Some women choose to use Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) following the menopause to try and ease the transition. Some people are concerned that the oestrogen contained within HRT can lead to a rise in blood pressure, although there is little evidence to confirm this relationship. Whether using HRT or not, all post-menopausal should have their blood pressure monitored.

During pregnancy

High blood pressure can also develop during pregnancy, so your blood pressure will be monitored closely during antenatal appointments. If your blood pressure is consistently raised, you will need treatment during pregnancy; your blood pressure will most likely normalise after delivery.

High blood pressure in men

In the UK, blood pressure rates tend to be higher in men up to the age of 64 than in women, and heart disease – of which high blood pressure is a major risk factor – is the leading cause of death in men.

High blood pressure is also a cause for concern for men due to its relation to erectile dysfunction. High blood pressure can damage the small blood vessels that feed the penis, leading to a reduced blood supply. As a result, it may become difficult to achieve and maintain an erection, also known as erectile dysfunction.