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This information was reviewed and approved by Andrew M. Freeman, MD, FACC, FACP (8/1/2019).

The best way to diagnose high blood pressure (HBP or hypertension) is to have your blood pressure measured with a pressure cuff (sphygmomanometer).

During the test, the cuff is placed around the upper arm before being manually or electronically inflated. Once inflated, the cuff compresses the brachial artery and momentarily stops blood flow. Then air in the cuff is slowly released while the person performing the measurement listens with a stethoscope.


Your blood pressure reading is recorded as two numbers:

  • Systolic blood pressure (the top number) — how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls during heartbeats

  • Diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) — how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart rests between beats


What the Blood Pressure Numbers Mean

Normal Blood Pressure

Systolic blood pressure (the first number) is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease in people over 50. As we age, systolic blood pressure gradually increases as the large arteries get stiff, and plaque builds up.

  • Normal BP = 120 or less /80 or less mm Hg


Elevated Blood Pressure

Eat healthy and be physically active to keep your blood pressure in the normal range.

  • Elevated = 120 – 129 /more than 80 mm Hg

If your blood pressure falls in this range, talk with your doctor about steps to lower your numbers. Taking a 20 minute walk every day can help. Get more information and oin the National Jewish Health Walk with a Doc Program.


High Blood Pressure/Hypertension

  • Hypertension = 130 or more /80 or more mm Hg

If your blood pressure is consistently at or above 130/80 mm Hg, you are at increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Your doctor may prescribe lifestyle changes and blood pressure medication, depending on your risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD).

The American College of Cardiology has a free online ASCVD estimator that calculates your 10-year ASCVD risk to establish a reference point. This online tool looks at blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, smoking status and certain treatments. Check your ACSVD risk here.

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