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High Blood Pressure Basics

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Updated May 16, 2014

Medical person checking blood pressure
Arthur Tilley/Stockbyte/Getty Images

What does "Blood Pressure" Mean?

The average hearts beats almost 90,000 times per day. With each beat, the heart expels blood into the arteries – strong, muscular tubes that carry blood to all parts of body, branching into smaller and smaller tubes along the way.

When the heart beats, it generates force, which is transferred to the blood. As blood leaves the heart, it carries this force with it into the arteries. This force pushes on the walls of the arteries and the arteries push back, helping to propel the blood forward into the body.

This force also causes pressure within the arteries, which is called blood pressure. Blood pressure measurements consist of two numbers. The systolic pressure is measured while the heart is contracting, and is the larger of the two numbers. The diastolic pressure is measured while the heart is relaxing, and is smaller than the systolic pressure. These two pressures are written together, like this: 120/80, and pronounced "120 over 80." Both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure are important determinants of cardiovascular risk, so both are used in evaluating overall blood pressure status.

Why is Blood Pressure Important?

When measured as an average value over a long period of time (weeks to months) the blood pressure is an important value that directly affects how likely you are to

  • have a heart attack
  • suffer a stroke
  • develop other problems, like kidney failure

While blood pressure by itself cannot say that you definitely will, or will not, suffer any of these ailments, a very large body of scientific research has shown that high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) is a strong risk factor for developing a wide range of medical problems.

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