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Understanding Prehypertension

Prehypertension is a term that alerts people to the risk of developing chronic high blood pressure if they don’t take timely steps to improve their lifestyle habits, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Someone who ends up with full-blown high blood pressure may, in time, develop heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, or dementia, and may have to stay on prescription drugs for life.

The numbers to remember are 120 over 80 up to 139 over 89. That reading should be seen as a yellow light, the NHLBI says. According to guidelines recently issued by the federal government, those numbers signal the presence of prehypertension.

Checking the pressure

Blood pressure should be measured every year or two, and more often if you have abnormal readings. Regular blood pressure checks are important because you can feel perfectly relaxed and healthy yet still have an elevated level.

A reading of 120 over 80 is where prehypertension begins, and 140 over 90 is where hypertension begins for most healthy adults. When the top (systolic) number is between 120 and 139, and/or the bottom (diastolic) number is between 80 and 89, your reading is in the prehypertension range. For people older than age 50, the systolic reading is more important.

When your systolic pressure is 120 or higher, you should focus on lifestyle choices to try to improve your blood pressure. Starting at a reading of 140, you also need to talk to your health care provider about using blood pressure medication.

If you have prehypertension

Don't wait until you develop high blood pressure to do something about it. Small lifestyle changes can help delay progression to high blood pressure and the need for medications. Start with exercise. Regular, vigorous walking has been shown to help lower blood pressure. Exercise will help keep your weight under control, too. Eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Limit the amount of salt and sodium in your diet. The American Heart Association recommends  that everyone, no matter their age, ethnic background, or medical conditions, consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day.

Avoid alcohol, and if you smoke, quit. Learn relaxation techniques to help you better handle stress.