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Blood Pressure: What The Numbers Mean

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Dear Dr. Levister: I was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure. I purchased a machine which reads my pressure but I don’t understand what the numbers mean. J.C.

Dear J.C.: A blood pressure reading includes two numbers, one written on top of the other.

The top number is SYSTOLIC, which is the higher of the two numbers. Systolic measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (when the heart muscle contracts).

The bottom number is DIASTOLIC, which is the lower of the two numbers. Diastolic measures the pressure between heartbeats (when the heart muscle is resting and refilling with blood).

Your blood pressure rises with each heartbeat and falls when your heart relaxes between beats. While BP can change from minute to minute with changes in posture, exercise, stress or sleep, it should normally be less than 120/80 mm Hg (less than 120 systolic AND less than 80 diastolic) for an adult age 20 or over. About one in three (33.5%) U.S. adults has high blood pressure.

Don’t panic if your blood pressure is abnormal on the first reading. To get an accurate reading, you may need to take your blood pressure several times to get the technique down to a science. Your doctor can easily help you with a demonstration. Just ask.

High Blood pressure (also known as hypertension) in African Americans is common. Here are a few facts:

African-Americans develop high blood pressure at younger ages than other groups in the U.S. African- Americans are more likely to develop complications associated with high blood pressure. These problems include stroke kidney disease, blindness, dementia, and heart disease.

Many experts believe that high rate of high blood pressure in African- Americans is the result of a combination of different factors, both genetic and environmental.

• Genetic factors: High rates of high blood pressure in African-Americans may be due to the genetic make-up of people of African descent. Researchers have uncovered some facts: In Africa, blacks who maintain traditional lifestyles have few problems with high blood pressure. In the U.S, blacks respond differently to high blood pressure drugs than do other groups of people. Blacks in the U.S. also seem to be more sensitive to salt.

• Environmental factors. Blacks worldwide have rates of high blood pressure that are similar to whites. In the U.S., however, the difference is dramatic: 41% of blacks have high blood pressure, as compared to 27% of whites. In addition, black people in the U.S are more likely to be overweight than blacks in other countries. Some experts think that social and economic factors -- including discrimination and economic inequality -- are responsible for this difference.

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