The Basics: Blood Pressure Overview

One in 3 American adults have high blood pressure. High blood pressure increases your risk for serious health problems, including stroke and heart attack.

Get your blood pressure checked regularly starting at age 18 – and do your best to keep track of your blood pressure numbers.

What puts me at higher risk for high blood pressure?

Your risk for high blood pressure goes up as you get older. You are also at higher risk for high blood pressure if you:

  • Are African American
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have blood pressure higher than normal
  • Don’t get enough physical activity
  • Drink too much alcohol
  • Don’t eat a healthy diet
  • Have kidney failure, diabetes, or some types of heart disease

How It’s Measured

What do blood pressure numbers mean?

A blood pressure test measures how hard your heart is working to pump blood through your body.

Blood pressure is measured with 2 numbers. The first number is the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number is the pressure in your arteries between beats, when your heart relaxes.

Compare your blood pressure to these numbers:

  • Normal blood pressure is lower than 120/80 (said “120 over 80”).
  • High blood pressure is 140/90 or higher.
  • Blood pressure that’s between normal and high (for example, 130/85) is called elevated blood pressure or prehypertension

Prevent worsening high blood pressure or complications over your lifetime

If you have high blood pressure, it is important to get routine medical care and to follow your prescribed treatment plan, which will include heart-healthy lifestyle changes and possibly medicines. Heart-healthy lifestyle changes can prevent high blood pressure, reduce elevated blood pressure, help control existing high blood pressure, and prevent complications, such as heart attack, heart failure, stroke, vascular dementia, or chronic kidney disease.

Ask your doctor about things you can do to reduce your risk. You can find common questions to ask your provider here.

The Basics: What is a Stroke?

What is a stroke?

A stroke is sometimes called a “brain attack.” A stroke happens when blood flow to part of the brain is blocked, which can hurt or kill cells in the brain.

Stroke is a leading cause of death in adults. It’s also a common cause of brain damage and long-term disability.

A stroke can cause long-term problems like:

  • Trouble thinking and speaking
  • Paralysis (not being able to move some parts of the body)
  • Trouble controlling or expressing emotions

The Basics: Am I at Risk?

Am I at risk for stroke?

The number one risk factor for stroke is high blood pressure. High blood pressure has no signs or symptoms, so it’s important to get your blood pressure checked regularly.

Ask your doctor how often you need to get your blood pressure checked. You can also ask whether measuring your blood pressure at home is right for you.

Other risk factors for stroke include:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Using illegal drugs (like cocaine or heroin)
  • Diabetes
  • Physical inactivity and obesity
  • An irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation)
  • High cholesterol
  • You are at higher risk of having a stroke as you get older. You may also be more at risk if someone in your family has had a stroke. Make sure you know your family’s medical history and share it with your doctor.

The Basics: Signs

What are the signs of a stroke?

A stroke usually happens suddenly – and with little warning. Signs of a stroke include:</p

  • Sudden dizziness, loss of balance, or trouble walking
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or trouble understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg – especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

Having a stroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 right away if you or someone else shows signs of stroke. Your chances of surviving and recovering from a stroke are better if you get emergency treatment right away.

What is a mini-stroke?

A mini-stroke has the same symptoms as a stroke, but the symptoms don’t last as long. A min-stroke is also called a TIA, which stands for transient ischemic attack.

A TIA happens when blood flow to the brain is blocked for a short period of time – usually a couple of minutes. If you’ve had a TIA, you are at greater risk for having a larger stroke.

Never ignore a TIA. Call 911 right away if you or someone else shows signs of stroke.

FAST-Identifying the symptoms of a stroke

Take Action!

Take these steps today to reduce your risk of stroke.

  • Get your blood pressure checked.
  • Get your cholesterol checked.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Get active.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Eating healthy.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Take Action: Talk with Your Doctor

Ask your doctor about taking aspirin every day.

The Basics: Cholesterol Overview

It’s important to get your cholesterol checked regularly. Too much cholesterol in your blood can cause a heart attack or a stroke.

The good news is that it’s easy to get your cholesterol checked. If your cholesterol is high, you can take steps to lower it – like eating healthy, getting more physical activity, and taking medicine if your doctor recommends it.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance (material) that’s found naturally in your blood. Your body makes cholesterol and uses it to do important things, like making hormones and digesting fatty foods.

You also raise your cholesterol by eating foods like egg yolks, fatty meats, and cheese.

If you have too much cholesterol in your body, it can build up inside your blood vessels and make it hard for blood to flow through them. Over time, this can lead to heart disease and heart attack or stroke.

Types of Cholesterol

What do the test results mean?

If you get a lipid profile test, the results will show 4 numbers. A lipid profile measures:

  • Total cholesterol
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • HDL (good) cholesterol
  • Triglycerides

Total cholesterol is a measure of all the cholesterol in your blood. It’s based on the LDL, HDL, and triglycerides numbers. 

LDL cholesterol is the “bad” type of cholesterol that can block your arteries – so a lower level is better for you.

HDL cholesterol is the “good” type of cholesterol. It helps clear LDL cholesterol out of your arteries, so a higher level is better for you. Having a low HDL cholesterol level can increase your risk for heart disease.

Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood that can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. 

What can cause unhealthy cholesterol levels?

LDL cholesterol levels tend to increase as people get older. Other causes of high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels include:

  • Family history of high LDL cholesterol
  • High blood pressure or type 2 diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol – and not enough fruits and vegetables
  • Taking certain medicines, like medicines to lower blood pressure
  • Causes of low HDL (good) cholesterol levels include:
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Eating too much sugar and starch (called carbohydrates)
  • Not eating enough fruits, vegetables, and unsaturated fat (like olive oil)

What if my cholesterol levels aren’t healthy?

As your LDL cholesterol gets higher, so does your risk of heart disease. Take these steps to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease:

  • Eat heart-healthy foods.
  • Get active.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • If you have type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, take steps to manage it.
  • Ask your doctor about taking medicine to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Ask your doctor about things you can do to reduce your risk. You can find common questions to ask your provider here.

The Basics: Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Overview

If you are a man age 65 to 75 and have ever smoked, ask your doctor about getting screened (tested) for abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA).

Am I at risk for AAA?

Men over age 65 who have smoked at any point in their lives have the highest risk of AAA. Both men and women can have AAA, but it’s more common in men.

Risk factors for AAA include:

  • Family history – for example, if a parent or sibling had AAA
  • Smoking
  • Older age
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease or vascular disease (problems with blood vessels)

What is AAA?

The aorta is your body’s main artery. An artery is a blood vessel (or tube) that carries blood from your heart. The aorta carries blood from your heart to your abdomen, pelvis, and legs.

If the wall of your aorta is weak, it can swell like a balloon. This balloon-like swelling is called an aneurysm. AAA is an aneurysm that occurs in the part of the aorta running through the abdomen.

Why do I need to talk to the doctor?

Aneurysms usually grow slowly without any symptoms. When aneurysms grow large enough to rupture (burst), they can cause dangerous bleeding inside the body that can lead to death.

If AAA is found early, it can be treated before it bursts. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your doctor if you may be at risk.

Take Action: Talk to Your Doctor

Take these steps to lower your risk for AAA.

Talk with your doctor about your risk for AAA.

Here are some questions you might want to ask your doctor or nurse:

  • Do I need to get screened for AAA?
  • How can I get help to quit smoking?
  • What are my blood pressure and cholesterol numbers?
  • What other steps can I take to keep my heart and blood vessels healthy?

What does AAA look like?

Here’s an example of what AAA looks like inside the body:

Take Action: Lower Your Risk

Make changes to lower your risk for AAA.

It’s never too late to take steps to lower your risk for AAA.

Quit smoking.

  • Quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do to lower your risk for AAA.
  • If you smoke, now is the time to quit. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and help setting up a plan to quit.

Check your blood pressure.

  • Get your blood pressure checked. If your blood pressure is high, you can help lower it by getting active, watching your weight, and eating less sodium (salt).
  • Use this list to help you shop for lower-sodium foods.

Get your cholesterol checked.

  • Find out what your cholesterol levels are. If your cholesterol is high, start a heart-healthy eating plan. This means eating foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Find out more about eating healthy.
  • Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes of physical activity every week. Check out these ways to add more activity to your day.