By now, we’ve all heard that maintaining a healthy blood pressure is important for our wellness and for avoiding disease. But what, exactly, is a healthy blood pressure? The simplest answer is that it depends. Blood pressure rises and falls naturally throughout the day, from moment to moment, from year to year, but a “normal range” has been established for individuals. Your normal range—the range of blood pressures considered desirable for you—is determined by a variety of factors, depending on your age, gender, weight, etc.
An Average Value
For the average, healthy adult, a blood pressure reading of 120/80 mmHg (or slightly less) is considered optimal. The top number, known as the systolic pressure, represents the pressure experienced by your vessels when the heart is actively pumping. The bottom, or diastolic number, represents the more relaxed pressure experienced between heart beats. Together, these numbers help provide a snapshot of the overall health of your cardiovascular system.
But, of course, 120/80 mmHg represents a singular pressure reading, not a range. When your doctor checks your blood pressure, he knows it’s liable to change from one reading to the next. What he or she is really looking for is a blood pressure that falls within an acceptable range. For this, your doctor will rely on well-established tables of pressure values. They provide guidance regarding what’s considered normal and healthy, and what’s a potential cause for concern.
Let’s back up for a moment, and review what blood pressure is actually measuring, and why it’s of interest. The heart is a powerful muscle that helps circulate blood throughout the body, continuously, repeatedly, relentlessly. Under great pressure, the heart forces freshly oxygenated blood through the arteries to every organ and area of the body. Always branching, becoming ever-smaller, these vessels eventually diminish to the size of tiny capillaries, where much of the work of exchanging gases, nutrients and wastes occurs. Eventually, these vessels take on the characteristics of veins; increasingly larger-diameter vessels that carry oxygen and nutrient-depleted blood back to the heart and lungs to renew the endless cycle of blood circulation.
Because blood must be forces to distant limbs, sometimes against gravity, the system must operate under relatively high pressure. The blood vessels themselves play a role in the regulation of this pressure. Lined with tiny involuntary muscle cells, your arteries can be squeezed somewhat to raise blood pressure in times of great need. During fight or flight, for instance, the body releases hormones, such as adrenalin, which signal these muscle cells to contract, rapidly raising your blood pressure. At the same time, the heart begins pumping much faster. It’s all designed to supply your muscles with maximum fuel and oxygen, so they can help keep you alive, by running for your life, or confronting danger.
When the crisis has been averted, adrenalin subsides, and blood pressure and heart rate return to normal. At least, that’s how things are supposed to work. Few of us must run to escape predators these days, but our ancient systems still respond much as they did in the days of saber-toothed tigers. Unfortunately, many of today’s pulse-pounding crises are far less likely to be resolved as fully or quickly. As a result, many people walk around in a state of low-level, stressful arousal. Unresolved stress can cause blood pressure levels to inch up, with no clear resolution in sight.
Blood Pressure Affects Cardiovascular Disease Risk
And then there’s the effect of modern diets and lifestyles on the state of the cardiovascular system. The above scenario is predicated on a healthy cardiovascular system. That includes healthy blood vessels with smooth interiors. These interiors—lined with a tissue called the endothelium—are smooth by design. But bad diets and lack of exercise, among other factors (e.g. smoking, excess drinking) can conspire to damage this lining.
As damage progresses, “lesions” may develop. These lesions are like sores or scars, where tissue builds up to address tears in the lining of the vessels. This process represents the beginning of atherosclerosis; the underlying cause of most cardiovascular disease. The endothelium also tends to become stiff as unhealthy diets, age, and lack of exercise all take a toll on the health of the cardiovascular system (including the blood vessels).
As a result, the heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout the system against increasing resistance. In order to accomplish this, blood must be pumped under increasing pressure. Eventually, this manifests as hypertension. Known as the “silent epidemic,” due to a lack of visible symptoms, often until it’s too late, high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. Accordingly, maintaining a healthy blood pressure is of paramount importance.
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