If you've been putting off a visit to the GP, now more than ever is the time to head to the doc. The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology just lowered the threshold for high blood pressure to 130/80 millimeters of mercury, and now 46% of Americans - up from 32% - fall in the danger zone.
The previous benchmark stood at 140/90 mmHG, but recent research revealed that cut-off didn't give patients a good indication of the threat hypertension presents. Readings even below those numbers - previously called "pre-hypertension" or "high-normal blood pressure" - signify serious risks too.
"We now know that a blood pressure level between 130-139/80-89 doubles your risk of cardiovascular complications such as a heart attack compared to people whose blood pressure is under 120/80," says Paul Whelton, M.D., lead author of the guidelines and a professor of global public health at Tulane University.
Doctors often call high blood pressure the "silent killer" because it's second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, behind cigarette smoking. Normal blood pressure is still considered under 120 mmHG for the systolic (top) number and 90 mmHG for the diastolic (bottom) number.
If you're one of the 30 million Americans who now fall in the extended range, don't worry too much. In the vast majority of cases, your doctor will likely recommend lifestyle changes, not a prescription, to get you back on track.
"If you already have a doubling of risk, you need to know about it," Whelton says. "It doesn't mean you need medication, but it's a yellow light that you need to be lowering your blood pressure." Losing weight, exercising more, drinking less alcohol and eating more fruits, veggies and whole grains can all make a positive difference and reduce your risk of other chronic diseases too.
While some people may have some devices to check their blood pressure at home, make sure you go to the doctor at least once a year for a reading, and more often if you have elevated or high blood pressure. To get the most accurate number, be still for five minutes before the test and don't talk during it. The cuff should be at your heart level as you're sitting up. The AHA also recommends getting multiple readings and averaging the results, since they can fluctuate significantly.
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