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Walking the Line

Do you have heart disease?

Image of blood pressure reading with 174 systolic and 95 diastolic. Sitting on a chart showing a blood pressure trend going downward. Also in image is a pair of glasses and a bottle of medication.

When teaching classes on heart-healthy living, I commonly ask by show of hands, who has heart disease? Interstingingly, not everyone raises their hand. But then I ask a more pointed question. Who in this class has high blood pressure? Remarkably, many more people raise their hands. Years ago, this surprised me. However, I have come to realize there is a significant disconnect for many when discussing various chronic health conditions. This is why I love helping people better understand health and how their lifestyle impacts their health.

If you are living with high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension, then you are one of the millions of Americans living with heart disease. Heart disease refers to several different heart conditions, ranging from congenital abnormalities, high blood pressure, and cholesterol to abnormal heart rhythms and a weakened heart. And it is a significant concern because heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing someone every 34 seconds.

Who has high blood pressure?

Nearly half (47%) of adults in the United States have high blood pressure. And unfortunately, only one in four with high blood pressure has it under control. What’s even more alarming is the number of youth between the ages of 12 to 19 years of age living with hypertension.

Measuring Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is measured using an inflatable cuff placed around your arm. As the cuff is inflated, a gauge measures the pressure of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. The measurement is recorded using two numbers, one over the top of the other (120/80), and is recorded in millimeters of mercury (mmHg).

The top number is the systolic blood pressure. It measures the force of blood against your artery’s walls when your heart beats or squeezes. The bottom number is the diastolic blood pressure. It measures the pressure in the arteries between beats or the force when the heart rests between beats.

Adult Blood Pressure Ranges

Blood Pressure Category

Systolic Blood Pressure
(Top Number)


Diastolic Blood Pressure
(Bottom Number)


Less than 120


Less than 80




Less than 80

Hypertension Stage 1




Hypertension Stage 2

140 or Higher


90 or Higher

Consult your healthcare provider immediately

Higher than 180


Higher than 120

Sources: American College of Cardiology; American Heart Association

Why does blood pressure matter?

Blood pressure is one of the vital signs healthcare providers use to tell how well your body is working. If your blood pressure is too high, it slowly causes damage throughout your body. Left untreated, it may lead to heart attack, stroke, kidney damage, and other medical complications.

Unfortunately, high blood pressure usually has no warning signs or symptoms. In fact, you may not even know you have it until significant damage has occurred. To prevent this, get your blood pressure tested regularly.  

Decrease your risk

Get tested. If you are 40 years or older or at risk for high blood pressure, have your blood pressure tested at least once a year.

Know your risk. Many factors put us at risk for high blood pressure, being overweight, race, having diabetes, and age just to name a few. Therefore, it’s important that you know if you are at risk for developing high blood pressure and take steps to reduce that risk.

Aim for a healthy weight. There is a direct relationship between body weight and blood pressure. If you are overweight or obese, you are at greater risk for high blood pressure. However, there’s good news. Losing as little as five to ten pounds can not only lower your blood pressure but also positively impact your overall health.

Be physically active. Our bodies were designed to move, and physical activity does amazing things to our bodies! Regular physical activity helps make our bones and muscle stronger. This includes our hearts. During exercise, blood vessels dilate and become less stiff as your heart works hard to pump blood throughout the body. As a result, the force placed on the arteries decreases, which lowers blood pressure. Be intentional about getting at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

Take your medication. Many changes in your lifestyle can be made to help lower your blood pressure. However, sometimes you will still need to take medication. If this is the case, always follow your healthcare provider’s instructions carefully. If you have questions or do not understand how or when to take your medication, ask. You can contact either your provider or you can speak with your pharmacist. Never stop taking your medication without first talking to your healthcare provider or your pharmacist, as stopping your medicine may result in serious health consequences. 

Limit or avoid alcohol. Did you know that consuming too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure? It’s true. Therefore, if you do not yet drink alcohol, do not start. And if you already consume alcohol, limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.

Parting Thoughts

Our lives are made up of the daily choices we make on a consistent basis. If your wellness goal is to create a healthier life so that you can enjoy your golden years, then you must practice consistency. Being consistent for many can be challenging because external circumstances often influence us. However, if we allow those external circumstances to sabotage our self-care and get in the way of making healthy choices, we will not be able to reach our goals. Therefore, whatever you are trying to achieve, be it lowing your blood pressure, losing weight, or consistently “moving more,” not quitting and persisting in your journey is critical. And you, my friend, can be consistent and keep moving forward on this journey to wellness.

SOURCE: Diane Reinhold, Nutrition and Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.


Heart Disease Facts .Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

High Blood Pressure in Kids and Teens. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Know Your Risk for High Blood Pressure. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Measure Your Blood Pressure. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

How exercise affects your blood pressure. SingleCare.

Manage High Blood Pressure. Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Limiting Alcohol to Manage High Blood Pressure. American Heart Association