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As many as one in five adult Americans has prehypertension.

Prehypertension is a new term that alerts people to the very real risk of developing chronic hypertension if they don’t take timely steps to improve their lifestyle habits. 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.

Everyone needs to be aware of their blood pressure level, particularly those with a family history of high blood pressure. The numbers to remember are 120 over 80 – the blood pressure reading that until recently was considered to fall in a healthy range. That reading now should be seen as a yellow light, experts say. According to guidelines issued by the federal government, those numbers signal the low end, or the beginning, of prehypertension.

Checking the pressure

When blood pressure is high, the heart works too hard and excessive pressure is exerted against the walls of your arteries. Without effective treatment, the forceful blood flow eventually can harm your arteries.

Have your blood pressure measured every year or two, and more often if you have abnormal readings. There’s no way to know if your blood pressure is high unless you have it checked, since you can feel perfectly relaxed and healthy yet still have an elevated level.

Some 30 percent of U.S. adults don’t know their blood pressure levels, and 40 percent with hypertension aren’t receiving any treatment, a national survey found.

Keep in mind that 120/80 is where prehypertension begins, and 140/90 is where hypertension begins. Thus, when your top (systolic) number is anywhere between 120 and 139, or the bottom (diastolic) number is between 80 and 89, your reading is in the prehypertension range. The systolic reading is key, particularly in people over age 50.

If your systolic pressure is 120 or higher, you need to focus on lifestyle choices to try to improve your blood pressure. Starting at 140, you may also need to discuss the use of drugs with your doctor.

Prevent hypertension

To prevent hypertension, people with prehypertension need to live a healthful lifestyle. That means:

  • Get your body moving. Regular vigorous walking has been shown to help lower blood pressure numbers. But, any type of physical activity is beneficial. Choose something you enjoy. If you enjoy walking, then walking a couple of miles four or more times a week is a great way to get exercise. If you detest walking, then vigorous yard work may be a good option.
  • Keep your weight under control. The increase in high blood pressure in recent years is due in large part to Americans’ getting heavier. Burning calories through exercise and adopting healthful eating habits will help you to lose weight or maintain a healthful weight. Losing as few as 10 pounds can have a significant effect on blood pressure levels.
  • Eat healthful foods. Unhealthy foods plus lack of exercise is a dangerous combination. But crash dieting is not the answer, either. Experts advocate the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan as a rational approach to healthful eating. DASH focuses on high intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products; and it limits sugary foods and beverages, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
  • Limit salt and sodium. Salt-sensitive people – those whose salt intake has a clear effect on their blood pressure readings – definitely need to limit the sodium in their diets. However, everyone can benefit from eating less salt and sodium. Limit sodium intake to the recommended 1,500 mg. per day.
  • Limit alcohol. Women and men of lower body weight should limit their alcohol to one drink per day, and heavier men and women should have no more than two drinks a day. These guidelines aren’t a recommendation to drink alcohol; rather, they offer limits for people who choose to drink.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking cigarettes temporarily causes an increase in blood pressure – but that’s not nearly as important as the fact that smoking adds to the risk of developing heart disease and stroke.