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High Blood Pressure: At a Glance

By The Manual's Editorial Staff, ,

High blood pressure (hypertension) is abnormally high pressure in the arteries.

High blood pressure occurs more often in older people—in about two thirds of people aged 65 or older, compared with only about one fourth of people aged 20 to 74. High blood pressure, particularly in younger people, may be caused by another disorder (called secondary hypertension).

High blood pressure increases the risk of developing blood vessel disorders, including angina, heart attacks, and strokes.

What Causes High Blood Pressure?

In people who have inherited a tendency to have high blood pressure, factors that lead to development include

Stress tends to cause blood pressure to increase temporarily, but blood pressure usually returns to normal once the stress is over.

How Is High Blood Pressure Diagnosed?

High blood pressure has been called the silent killer because it usually causes no symptoms for many years—until a vital organ is damaged. Arteries throughout the body may already be damaged before high blood pressure is diagnosed, so people should have their blood pressure measured regularly to detect high blood pressure early.

Measuring Blood Pressure

A sphygmomanometer is commonly used to measure blood pressure. It consists of a soft rubber cuff connected to a rubber bulb that is used to inflate the cuff and a meter that registers the pressure of the cuff.

Health care practitioners listen to blood flow with a stethoscope placed over the artery below the cuff as they squeeze the bulb to inflate the cuff. Then they gradually deflate the cuff. The pressure at which the practitioner first hears a pulse in the artery is the systolic pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading). As the cuff is deflated, the sound of blood flowing stops at some point. The pressure at this point is the diastolic pressure (the second number).

When Is Blood Pressure Too High?

Blood pressure is classified by its severity. When a person's systolic and diastolic pressures fall into different categories, the higher category is used to classify blood pressure.

The optimal blood pressure for minimizing the risk of cardiovascular problems (such as heart attack and heart failure) and stroke is

  • Below 115/75 mm Hg

Classifying Blood Pressure in Adults


Systolic Blood Pressure (mm Hg)

Diastolic Blood Pressure (mm Hg)

Normal blood pressure

Below 120

Below 80




Stage 1 hypertension



Stage 2 hypertension

Above 160

Above 100

How Is High Blood Pressure Controlled?

People with high blood pressure can do the following:

Many antihypertensive drugs can be used to help control high blood pressure. High blood pressure can be controlled in almost anyone, but treatment has to be tailored to the individual.

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