Autumn 2003
Ask the Expert: High Blood Pressure

High Blood Pressure

Stuart Zarich, MD


I’m 65, and my primary care physician just diagnosed me with borderline high blood pressure. She gave me a diet to follow and said I need to exercise—which I am doing. How will I know if my efforts are working?

Stuart Zarich, MD, chief of Cardiology in the Heart Institute at Bridgeport Hospital, responds:

You are wise to pay attention to your blood pressure. Nearly 90% of all older people do eventually develop high blood pressure, or hypertension. That can be dangerous because high blood pressure can cause damaged arteries and a weakened heart— leading to cardiovascular disease (angina, hardening of the arteries, heart attack, congestive heart failure, etc.). The sooner you are aware of elevated blood pressure, the sooner you can take steps to bring it back down.

There is only one way to know what your blood pressure is: Have it checked on a regular basis. Hypertension isn’t usually associated with symptoms.

What Is High Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force that moving blood exerts against the walls of your arteries. As your arteries grow narrower from blockages, your heart must work harder to pump blood around your body, and the pressure on the vessel walls increases.

Your blood pressure consists of two numbers. The first number is your systolic pressure, measured at the moment of greatest pressure, while the heart contracts, sending blood out through the body. The second is the diastolic pressure, measured while the heart relaxes between beats.

According to new guidelines released in May 2003 by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, normal blood pressure is below 120/80. This is the ideal level for heart health.

A systolic pressure between 120–139 and a diastolic pressure between 80–89 (for example, 130/82) is considered pre-hypertension, or borderline high blood pressure. This is a new category, indicating an increased risk of heart disease.

A systolic pressure between 140–159 and a diastolic between 90–99 (for example, 153/97) is Stage 1 or mild hypertension.

A systolic pressure above 160 or a diastolic pressure above 100 is considered Stage 2, or moderate to severe hypertension.

If you have been diagnosed with borderline or high blood pressure, your primary care physician has probably advised you to eat a diet low in salt and saturated fats, and to exercise at least 20 minutes every day. If you cannot control your high blood pressure with diet and exercise, you may have to take medications if you are at high risk for coronary disease (for instance, if you have diabetes) or if you have known coronary artery disease or kidney disease. It is also a good idea to have regular blood pressure screenings.

Bridgeport Hospital offers free monthly blood pressure screenings in a number of community locations. For a referral to a physician, or for information on days, times, and places for free community blood pressure screenings, call 888-357-2396. English/Spanish, 24/7.