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How to monitor your blood pressure numbers

Lesley Dobson / 29 July 2021

High blood pressure causes half of all strokes and heart attacks. Find out how to monitor your blood pressure and protect your health.

Apple with a heart cut out of it
Being overweight, not doing enough exercise, drinking too much alcohol, and eating too much salt and not enough fruit and vegetables can all contribute to high blood pressure.

According to research by UK charity Blood Pressure UK, almost three quarters of UK adults are completely unaware of what their blood pressure numbers are.

High blood pressure (hypertension) rarely causes any symptoms but can increase your risk of stroke, heart attacks, kidney disease and vascular dementia, so it's important to know your numbers.

That’s why the charity is organises Know your Numbers! Week – the nation’s biggest blood pressure testing event, where thousands of venues across the UK, including supermarkets, pharmacies, health clubs and other community venues, offer free blood pressure checks in September each year.

Saga Health Insurance may be able to provide you with cover even if you already have high blood pressure (hypertension), subject to some simple health questions and an additional premium. Find out more.


What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force at which your blood travels through your arteries. Your heart propels your blood each time it beats. The pressure is created when your blood pushes against the walls of your blood vessels.

Our blood pressure can rise and fall, depending on the physical activity we’re doing, whether we are stressed or relaxed, and on the time of day.

The blood pressure level that we should aim for is between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg (90 over 60 and 120 over 80). These figures indicate that your blood pressure is at the right level to help keep you healthy.

However, we don’t all have this reading. What is normal for one person may not be normal for another. According to the charity Blood Pressure UK, the most common readings in adults in the UK are between 120/80 and 140/90. If your blood pressure readings are on or between these figures, you should talk to your GP about how to bring them down.

While a blood pressure reading between these two figures doesn’t mean that you have high blood pressure, it’s still a good idea to do whatever you can to stop it rising any further, and to reduce it. This is because even slightly high blood pressure can increase your chances of having health problems.

Are you at risk of high blood pressure?

About a quarter of UK adults have high blood pressure, but a third of them don’t even know they have it because it’s symptomless. So while many people think they’ll experience warning signs such as headaches or a red face, the reality is the first symptom of high blood pressure can be a stroke or heart attack. High blood pressure is also a risk factor for kidney disease and vascular dementia.

Some may say ignorance is bliss, but this certainly isn’t the case for high blood pressure as, once it’s diagnosed, the condition can be successfully managed. That why it’s so important to have regular blood pressure checks.

While high blood pressure can affect absolutely anyone – young or old, super-fit or couch potato – there are some factors which will increase your risk of developing it:

  • Age – blood pressure tends to rise as we get older. For example, research has found that 20 per cent of those in their 20s have high blood pressure, 40 per cent in their 40s and 60 per cent in their 60s. So it’s increasingly important to have regular checks as you get older. An easy way to do this is to home monitor.
  • Family history – if one or more members of your family (usually a parent or sibling) have high blood pressure then you’ll be at increased risk, and the more family members who have high blood pressure, the greater the risk. If you’ve already been diagnosed with high blood pressure, be sure to pass this information onto your children too.
  • Lifestyle - being overweight, not doing enough exercise, drinking too much alcohol, and eating too much salt and not enough fruit and vegetables can all contribute to high blood pressure.

Are there symptoms to having high blood pressure?

One of the reasons why we need to have our blood pressure checked regularly is that high blood pressure doesn’t usually cause any symptoms or signs. This is the only way that you can find out whether you have high blood pressure. Having said that, having a high blood pressure reading one day doesn’t mean that you’ll have an equally high blood pressure reading the following week or month.

If your GP finds that you have high blood pressure having checked you on one occasion, they won’t automatically decide that your blood pressure is high all the time. They are likely to ask you to come in for at least one or two more blood pressure checks.

There is one symptom that is sometimes mentioned by people who are found to have very high blood pressure, and that is headache. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone who suffers with headaches has high blood pressure.

Understanding why your blood pressure changes

Your blood pressure is measured using two figures. These show your blood pressure when your heart is pumping your blood around your blood vessels, and your blood pressure when your heart is between heart beats.

Our blood pressure changes often, depending on what we are doing. It is higher if you are doing something strenuous, like walking up a hill, and lower if you are sitting down and relaxing.

High blood pressure is when the pressure of blood in your arteries is persistently at a high level, and so damages the lining of the arteries. And it makes you more predisposed to the furring up of the arteries, which is atherosclerosis, which can lead to coronary heart disease. It can also make you more at risk of heart attack and stroke.

It’s the persistently high pressure of your blood going through the arteries – and some of the veins as well – that damages the wall of the vessels, and then makes you predisposed to heart attacks and strokes.

As you grow older you chances of developing high blood pressure increase. If you haven't taken the best care of yourself, you are likely to be at a greater risk of having high blood pressure. There are a number of unhealthy habits that are known to increase your likelihood of having high blood pressure, such as smoking, drinking and eating too much salt. Other risk factors include your ancestry. People with families who have South Asian or African-Caribbean origins are genetically more likely to develop high blood pressure.

If you wear glasses and have your eye-sight checked, it’s possible that your ophthalmologist may be able to see damage that high blood pressure has caused to your optic nerve. If this happens you should have your blood pressure checked by your GP as soon as possible.

One of the serious health issues connected to high blood pressure is stroke. If you suddenly feel dizzy, and have trouble keeping your balance, seek medical help straight away, as these signs could mean that you are having a stroke.

Saga Health Insurance offers a range of health plans which provide cover if you develop high blood pressure (hypertension). If you've already been diagnosed they can often still cover your hypertension anyway, subject to some simple health questions and an additional premium. Find out more.


How to monitor your blood pressure

Visit your GP

The doctor, practice nurse or healthcare assistant can take a blood pressure (BP) reading. Some surgeries also have DIY machines.

Ask your pharmacist

Trained staff will measure your blood pressure. Lloyds, for example, offers a free drop-in service – no appointment needed.

Pressure Station (Know Your Numbers Week)

Held in the second week of September, this awareness initiative, run by the charity Blood Pressure UK, provides healthcare professionals to test your BP in supermarkets, shops, garages, pharmacies, gyms, shopping centres, churches, even bus depots.

Home kits

If you have a history of high blood pressure in your family, or there are other reasons why you might be at risk, it’s a good idea to buy a blood pressure machine, and keep a diary of your results. A one-off reading doesn’t tell you as much as a series of readings taken over a week or so.

There are many different home blood-pressure monitors, but top brands include Omron, Kinetik and HoMedics. Alternatively, ask your GP for an ambulatory BP monitoring kit – a small machine attached to a belt and connected to a cuff around your arm. It captures BP over the course of the day and is considered the most accurate way to check it.

But what do the numbers mean?

Blood pressure measurements are written as two numbers, e.g '120/80' or '120 over 80'. The top number is the systolic, which is when your heart is squeezing and pushing blood around the body, and the bottom number is the diastolic, when your heart relaxes. These numbers are measured in units of millimetres of mercury (or mmHg).

We should be all be aiming for a blood pressure of 120/80 or lower, which is the optimal level. Our blood pressure naturally fluctuates throughout the day, but if your readings are consistently at 140/90 or above over a number of weeks (both or just one of the numbers), then you probably have high blood pressure and will need to lower it.

If your readings are between these two levels, then you’d certainly benefit from lowering your blood pressure. A few lifestyle changes could really improve your blood pressure, helping you to avoid developing high blood pressure in the future.

In summary:

  • Systolic (upper figure) - the pressure as your heart pumps out blood.
  • Diastolic (lower figure) - the pressure when your heart relaxes between beats.
  • Low blood pressure: 90/60 mmHG or lower
  • Optimum blood pressure: 90/60-120/80 mmHG
  • High blood pressure: 140/90 mmHG or greater, or an average of 135/85 mmHG at home.

Women must also watch blood pressure

It’s often men who are the target of heart disease-related advice, but now middle-aged and older women are being told that the link between raised blood pressure and heart disease is even stronger for them than it is for men.

Researchers from 11 countries worked together on behalf of the International Database on Ambulatory blood pressure in relation to Cardiovascular Outcomes (IDACO), to assess nearly 10,000 people, of whom roughly half were women, over a period of 11 years.

They found that high systolic blood pressure (the first of the two numbers in your reading) is a powerful indicator of the likelihood of heart disease for women. They found that the percentage of potentially preventable and/or reversible cardiovascular disease in men is 24; but for women the figure is a far higher 36%. These figures were based on 24-hour systolic blood pressure monitoring, which gave the researchers a better overview of the participants’ blood pressure than, say, a one-off measurement would have done.

They also discovered that just three risk factors – high systolic pressure, high cholesterol and smoking – account for 85% of reversible risk of heart disease, meaning that if people addressed these issues, the majority of heart problems could be prevented. Analysing the figures further, the researchers calculated that by reducing systolic pressure by just 15mm Hg in hypertensive women, they could expect to see a 40% improvement in terms of preventing cardiovascular disease.

Subtle signs of women's heart disease

Top tips to lower or avoid high blood pressure

Professor Graham MacGregor, Chair of Blood Pressure UK, says: "If you’ve been prescribed blood pressure-lowering medicines by your doctor, then it’s really important you take them. Far too many people stop taking their medicines when they see their numbers going down, so their blood pressure goes up again and with this their risk of stroke and heart attack.

"Some people may be put off taking their medicines because of side effects, but the trick is to be persistent with any new medicine, giving your body at least six weeks to adjust if the side-effects aren’t intolerable. If the medicines are still unbearable after this time, then go back to your doctor, as there are literally hundreds of medicines to choose from."

Lifestyle changes that can lower blood pressure

To help you get started, here are some of Blood Pressure UK’s to lower blood pressure, which can help some people to avoid developing high blood pressure, and for those already taking medicines, can reduce the amount they need to take

  • 1. Cut down on salt – this is the quickest way to lower blood pressure. Don’t add it to your food, check food labels, and aim to eat less than 6g (a teaspoon) of salt a day. Watch out for hidden salt in foods like bread and cereals.
  • 2. Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • 3. Watch your weight – try to reach and keep at the right weight for your height.
  • 4. Exercise regularly – 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week is ideal. If you are unsure about taking up exercise, ask your GP.
  • 5. Drink alcohol in moderation – Men and women should stick to a maximum of 14 units a week (a pint of normal strength beer = 2.3 units, a medium glass of wine = 2.3 units).

To find out more about how to manage your blood pressure and Know Your Numbers! Week, please visit http://www.bloodpressureuk.org/know-your-numbers/know-your-numbers-week/

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Disclaimer

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.