High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

Basic Facts

What is High Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure is also known as hypertension. It is sometimes called the “silent killer” because it produces few, if any, symptoms. In fact, you might not even realize you have high blood pressure. But if it’s not treated, this condition can lead to heart attacks, strokes, memory loss, kidney disease, eye disease, and other serious problems. 

High blood pressure often goes hand-in-hand with getting older because blood vessels commonly stiffen as you age. As that happens, the amount of force needed to pump blood through your arteries increases and puts more pressure against artery walls. This can weaken and damage them as well as cause damage to the heart, kidneys and brain.  

Fortunately, high blood pressure is easy to detect and, in most cases, easy to control. And that’s why it’s so important to monitor your blood pressure regularly. 

  • Over half of people aged 60 and older have some amount of high blood pressure.
  • African Americans have a higher incidence of hypertension than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States.

Your Blood Pressure Measurement

Blood pressure is measured in two numbers. An example of a blood pressure reading is 130 over 90. (It is written out as 130/90 mm Hg). The first number measures your blood pressure when your heart is beating. This is called systolic pressure. The second number measures your blood pressure when your heart is at rest. This is called diastolic pressure.

Blood Pressure Categories and Your Blood Pressure Goal

Healthcare professionals have different recommendations for blood pressure levels depending on a person’s age and health. Your personal blood pressure goal depends on your age and other medical conditions. In general, the goal blood pressure is based on the systolic value, which for most otherwise healthy older adults is 130 mmHg or lower.

  • Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg;
  • Elevated: Systolic between 120-129 and diastolic less than 80;
  • Stage 1: Systolic between 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89;
  • Stage 2: Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 mm Hg;
  • Hypertensive crisis: Systolic over 180 and/or diastolic over 120. This requires prompt changes in medication if there are no other indications of problems, or immediate hospitalization if there are signs of organ damage.

It is important for you to work with your healthcare provider to come up with an individual blood pressure goal that fits your particular situation.  For example, a study called the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT) suggests that older adults with heart disease or some circulation problems have better outcomes with a lower systolic blood pressure goal of 120 mmHg or less without increasing the risk of falls. On the other hand, it may be harmful for some frail adults, including residents in long term care facilities, to lower their blood pressure too much.  


Last Updated July 2020