So What Really Is Considered High Blood Pressure?

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Countless stories about health news hone in on a simple measurement: blood pressure. Measuring the pressure that the flow of blood exerts on your blood vessels is quick, easy and important. If high, these levels are a well-known risk factor for heart disease. But are we cooking the books a bit? A new study says that perhaps 100 million Americans might be told they have abnormal blood pressure — but don't.Countless stories about health news hone in on a simple measurement: blood pressure. Measuring the pressure that the flow of blood exerts on your blood vessels is quick, easy and important. If high, these levels are a well-known risk factor for heart disease. But are we cooking the books a bit? A new study says that perhaps 100 million Americans might be told they have abnormal blood pressure — but don’t.

So let’s get to the new piece of health news. Researchers in Minnesota found that people with “abnormal” levels are not actually more likely to die prematurely than those with ‘normal’ blood pressure. That is known the world over as “120 over 80.” The study goes on to show that, in people under the age of 50, diastolic blood pressure is the more important predictor of mortality. Incredibly, for those over 50, it is the systolic levels that are stronger predictors.

What they argue is that we might need a new definition of “normal” blood pressure. In doing so, they looked at how diastolic and systolic blood pressure each affected mortality — and how these relationships might affect the number of Americans currently labeled as having abnormal blood pressure.

They looked at information on nearly 14,000 Americans enrolled in a program that began in the 1970s. They were followed for two decades, with the researchers studying blood pressure and long-term survival. They also looked at data for about 6,500 adults in a survey first carried out in 1959 and 1962.

Here are the important numbers to know. They found that, in people over 50, those with systolic levels above 140 were significantly more likely to die prematurely. For those under 50, diastolic levels above 100 were linked to significant increases in premature death.

The findings show that how we choose to define normal blood pressure will impact millions of American adults. The question becomes: if there is no reliable effect on death when you follow this large group of people for 20 years, should the condition be deemed abnormal?

This isn’t to say that blood pressure readings are not important. They remain a critical tool to understanding your heart’s health. Diastolic blood pressure is the lowest pressure within the bloodstream, occurring between heartbeats (when it’s relaxing). Systolic blood pressure is the highest pressure within the bloodstream, occurring during each heartbeat when the heart contracts.

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