Understanding Blood Pressure Tests

Learn the basics about this simple, yet essential, test.

from Looking After Your Body

This simple test measures how forcefully your heart pumps blood through your arteries. It should be performed at every checkup.

Who needs it
A blood pressure check is mandatory at least every other year until you are 65; after that, you need to be checked yearly.

How it’s done
An inflatable cuff is placed around your upper arm. The cuff is pumped up until it squeezes your arm snugly (to cut off your blood supply). Then it’s allowed to deflate while the person administering the test listens with a stethoscope placed below the cuff for when the sound of your heartbeat appears and disappears.

What the results mean
Blood pressure is reported in two numbers, 130/85, for example. The top number (called the systolic reading) is the pressure exerted when your heart beats, while the bottom number (called the diastolic reading) is the pressure exerted when your heart rests between beats. Blood pressure varies throughout the day, so don’t panic if you get one high reading. To get a true picture, your doctor may average several readings.

Ideally, the top number is around 120, and the bottom number falls between 70 and 80. You’re in the “normal” range if your top number is between 120 and 129 and your bottom number is between 80 and 84. “High-normal” ranges from 130 to 139 and 85 to 89. Any reading above 140/90 is considered high blood pressure, which can weaken your arteries, increasing your chance of heart attack and stroke. Low blood pressure (any reading significantly lower than 120/70) is called hypotension; it usually isn’t a problem unless it causes fainting or light-headedness.

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