Systolic over Diastolic, so what does that measure?

By age 60, high blood pressure affects one in every two Americans. Hypertension, as doctors call it, was once thought to be a normal part of aging. But researchers now know that high blood pressure is dangerous at any age.

When we talk about blood pressure, what we're actually referring to is the pressure within the aorta and the large arteries that connect to it. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and recorded as two numbers. Systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) is the maximum pressure that occurs in the blood vessels when the heart contracts. As the heart relaxes between beats, the pressure dissipates. This low pressure is measured as diastolic (the bottom number) blood pressure.

Systolic blood pressure is largely determined by the stiffness of the arteries and the amount of blood pumped through them during a heart beat. Many doctors once believed that as we got older our bodies needed increased systolic blood pressure to push blood through stiffened arteries. But researchers now know that this increase is not normal, and that high blood pressure at any age significantly increases the risk of heart attack, strokes, and kidney failure.

Today, most experts recommend that blood pressure not exceed 120/80 mmHg. Smoking, high cholesterol, and diabetes can elevate the risk of developing high blood pressure. Check your blood pressure regularly. If it is elevated, talk with your doctor. Exercise, dietary changes and, in some cases, medication can make a difference.