Your blood pressure and how to measure it from home
More than a third of Aussie adults have high blood pressure
Many of us grew up hearing of the dangers of high blood pressure, but assumed it was something that only happened to older people. And yet, more than a third of Australian adults have high blood pressure.
Worryingly, the first indication that you might have high blood pressure could be a heart attack or a stroke. That’s why it’s a condition known as the silent killer as it frequently gives no warning signs.
Now for the good news…
More than 80% of strokes can be prevented, according to Stroke Foundation Clinical Council Chair Professor Bruce Campbell. “And high blood pressure is the greatest modifiable risk factor,” Bruce says.
Read on to learn how to monitor your blood pressure and keep it in the healthy range – it might just save your life.
What is a blood pressure test?
A blood pressure test is where blood pressure is measured using an inflatable cuff placed around your upper arm. The cuff is attached to a small gauge which gives two readings: your systolic pressure (the amount of pressure in your artery when your heart contracts to pump blood) and your diastolic pressure (the amount of pressure once the heart rests between beats).
Your systolic pressure is recorded on top and your diastolic pressure below. It may look something like this: 120/80.
What do the numbers mean?
As a general guide, anything below 120/80 is considered optimal. Anything between 120/80 to 139/89 is considered normal to high-normal, while 140/90 is considered high.
If your blood pressure is 160/100 or over you are considered high risk and The Stroke Foundation recommends seeing your doctor immediately for a full assessment.
“The best way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked regularly by a doctor or pharmacist,” says Bruce. You can also test it yourself at home.
How can I check my blood pressure at home?
To monitor your blood pressure at home, you can purchase a blood pressure monitor.
Bruce says “it’s important to read the instructions to operate your blood pressure monitor correctly. Take a number of readings while sitting quietly, remembering that blood pressure naturally varies with activity and readings are not always accurate.”
For the most accurate result, avoid exercise, caffeine and smoking for 30 minutes before taking your reading.
Research shows that people who monitor their blood pressure at home are more likely to keep their blood pressure in a healthy range than those only monitored by their doctor.
Related: Blood pressure: What’s your number?
What happens if I have high or low blood pressure?
If you have low blood pressure, you don’t have to do anything. Low pressure (hypotension) is only considered a problem if symptoms (such as dizziness or light-headedness) are impacting your sense of wellbeing, in which case you should see your GP.
High blood pressure (hypertension), however, puts you at greater risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
Ways to reduce blood pressure:
Lose weight if you are overweight
Exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week
Quit smoking (smoking doubles your risk of stroke)
Follow a healthy diet
Reduce salt (look for sodium levels under 120mg per 100g on nutrition labels)
Drink less alcohol
Visit your GP regularly. Your doctor may recommend medication in addition to lifestyle changes
‘My brother-in-law’s stroke was a wake-up call’
Bob Carnaby, 73, began monitoring his blood pressure regularly after his brother-in-law had a stroke causing partial paralysis to his right side. He also lost the ability to speak, read, write and drive. It was a wake-up call for Bob.
“Before my brother-in-law’s stroke, I coasted along and didn’t take my health seriously,” says Bob. "I had that attitude ‘it’s never going to happen to me’. My GP occasionally checked my blood pressure, but I didn’t actively seek it out.”
Despite Bob’s belief that something similar couldn’t happen to him, he had several risk factors for stroke and heart attack, one of which was high blood pressure.
“It didn’t really gel with me at first, but after talking to the Stroke Foundation about my brother-in-law, I began thinking about my own condition.”
Since then, Bob has made huge changes to his lifestyle. After being a heavy drinker for 50 years, he has given up alcohol, exercises regularly and has lost 16kg. He also bought an automated blood pressure machine on his doctor’s recommendation and monitors his blood pressure daily.
“It was pretty cheap,” says Bob. “I bought it online and took it to the GP to get it calibrated. I just put the cuff around my arm, push a button and away it goes.”
Bob records his readings on a daily summary sheet and takes it with him when he visits his GP. “If my blood pressure goes out of my healthy range, my doctor has the ability to adjust my blood pressure medication. However, at this stage, he hasn’t had to,” says Bob
“I can’t speak for others, but for me, the biggest difference was changing my diet,” says Bob. “Exercise alone didn’t do it. I quit butter, salt and biscuits, and took off 16 kilos.”
Bob’s blood pressure is now in the normal range.
“While it does involve being conscious of eating and exercise habits all the time, it makes you feel really good to drop out of the obese range. Not only that, but I look good and get around better.”
And to those who think ‘It couldn’t happen to me’?
“I’d say, wake up to yourself,” says Bob. “Everybody should have a good look at their diet and exercise regime. Those two things are daily no-brainers that can potentially save your life.”
Has it been a while since your last check-up?
It might be time to book an appointment with a GP. Our Find a Provider service allows you to search for health professionals like GPs in your local area.
If you’re heading to your GP for a check-up, it could be a good opportunity to find out what other examinations you might be due for.
If you’re aged between 20-29, find out more with our article Health checks in your 20s.
If you’re aged between 30-39, we’ve put together a list of Health checks in your 30s.
Aged 40-49? There’s a dedicated article on The Check Up, Health checks in your 40s.
And, for the young-at-hearters (or those of us between 50-59), check out Health checks in your 50s.