Maureen Pratt

I’ve heard this comment made more than once: “I had no idea my blood pressure was too high. I didn’t feel a thing.”

Perhaps you have said the same, until you had your blood pressure checked. You had no idea it was dangerously high and put you at risk for heart attack, stroke or other problem.

February is American Heart Month — a good time to learn what we can do to help our hearts be as healthful as possible. One of these things is important, but often overlooked: Knowing our blood pressure and seeking help if it is too high.

Despite all of my health problems, high blood pressure (hypertension) is not one of them. So, I consulted with Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a preventive cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., to find out just what high blood pressure is, why it is so dangerous and why it is so invisible.

Blood pressure is a measure of the force exerted to circulate blood to the heart. It is expressed in two numbers, one over the other. Fletcher says systolic pressure, the top number, “measures how well the heart pumps blood to the body,” and the diastolic (bottom) number “measures how relaxed the blood vessels are to circulate blood.” The higher the numbers, the harder the heart has to work to pump blood and/or the more constricted the blood vessels are.

“Normal blood pressure is around 120/80 or less,” Fletcher said. “When it gets high, it strains the heart from the elevated pressure of flow through the blood vessels. It can also strain the kidneys and brain, and it can cause heart attack and stroke.”

Unless it is very high, someone with high blood pressure will usually not experience any noticeable symptoms.

“You have to have your blood pressure taken,” Fletcher said. “There’s no way to be sure it’s normal unless you do. You can have your doctor do it, or use one of the blood pressure check devices found in pharmacies, or even go to your local fire station.”

Wherever you have it checked, be sure you are seated, with back straight, and breathe normally. Initially, it is a good idea to check blood pressure in both arms because it can be higher in one than another, but in subsequent checks, either arm will do. If it is higher than 120/80, speak to your doctor about what you should do to control it.

Although it may have a genetic component, high blood pressure usually develops due to unhealthful lifestyle choices, including smoking, poor diet, obesity, excess salt intake and lack of exercise. It can also become elevated after menopause, making it even more important that post-menopausal women have their blood pressure checked regularly. As for stress, is it one of the causes?

“Stress probably does not directly cause high blood pressure,” Fletcher said. “It might aggravate it, but if you have it, you have it.”

Prescription medicines and lifestyle modifications can help a patient control hypertension, but for these to be effective, compliance is key. The patient with hypertension needs to be proactive and dedicated to his or her wellness post-diagnosis, communicating to his or her doctor any concerns or side effects.

“We have to be responsible for ourselves,” Fletcher said.

American Heart Month is an excellent time to take better control of your health. Get to know your blood pressure readings and set an example for wellness that comes, well, from the heart.


Pratt’s website is