Blood pressure measures the pressure of the blood in your arteries when your heart beats and when it relaxes. Numbers outside of the typical range can mean your heart is working too hard to pump blood to your body.

You likely already know that your blood pressure is important, and that it can affect your health in many ways.

But what exactly is a healthy blood pressure reading, and what do your blood pressure numbers mean?

In this article, we’ll explain what’s considered normal, elevated, and high blood pressure, and what that means for you and your health.

When a healthcare professional takes your blood pressure, it’s expressed as a measurement with two numbers, one number on top (systolic) and one on the bottom (diastolic), like a fraction. For example, 120/80 mm Hg.

Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury. That’s what the mm/Hg stands for. Here’s what the numbers mean:

  • Your systolic pressure (the top number) is the pressure of the blood in your arteries when your heart contracts or beats.
  • Your diastolic pressure (the bottom number) is the pressure of the blood in your arteries between beats, when your heart relaxes.

Both numbers are important in determining the state of your heart health.

Numbers greater than the ideal range may be a sign that your heart is working too hard to pump blood to the rest of your body.

For a normal reading, your blood pressure needs to show:

  • a systolic pressure that’s above 90 mm Hg and less than 120 mm Hg, and
  • a diastolic pressure that’s between 60 mm Hg and less than 80 mm Hg

The American Heart Association (AHA) considers blood pressure to be within the normal range when both your systolic and diastolic numbers are in these ranges.

If you’re in the normal range, no medical intervention is needed. However, it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and moderate weight to help prevent high blood pressure from developing.

You may need to be even more mindful of your lifestyle if high blood pressure runs in your family.

Normal blood pressure

A normal blood pressure reading for an adult is blood pressure that’s below 120/80 mm Hg and above 90/60 mm Hg.

Blood pressure numbers that are higher than 120/80 mm Hg are a warning sign. It means you need to pay attention to your blood pressure and focus on heart-healthy habits.

Although these numbers aren’t technically considered high blood pressure, you’ve moved out of the normal range. Elevated blood pressure may turn into high blood pressure, which puts you at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Elevated blood pressure

When your systolic pressure is between 120 and 129 mm Hg and your diastolic pressure is less than 80 mm Hg, it means you have elevated blood pressure.

No medications are necessary for elevated blood pressure. But your doctor may talk with you about the importance of a healthy lifestyle, such as getting regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and managing your weight.

You may receive a diagnosis of stage 1 hypertension (the medical term for high blood pressure) if:

  • your systolic blood pressure is between 130 and 139 mm Hg, or
  • your diastolic blood pressure is between 80 and 89 mm Hg

However, the AHA notes that if you get only one reading this high, you may not truly have stage 1 hypertension. What determines the diagnosis of hypertension at any stage is the average of your blood pressure numbers over a period of time.

Your doctor can help you measure and track your blood pressure to confirm whether it’s too high.

Stage 1 hypertension

If your systolic blood pressure is 130 to 139 mm Hg or your diastolic blood pressure is 80 to 89 mm Hg, it’s considered stage 1 hypertension.

If you’re at lower risk, your doctor may want to follow up in 3 to 6 months after you’ve adopted healthier habits.

If you’re 65 years or older and otherwise healthy, your doctor will likely recommend treatment and lifestyle changes once your systolic blood pressure is greater than 130 mm Hg.

The treatment for adults 65 and older who have significant health problems should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Treating high blood pressure in older adults appears to decrease memory problems and dementia.

Stage 2 hypertension indicates a more serious condition.

You may receive a diagnosis of stage 2 hypertension if:

  • your systolic blood pressure is 140 mm Hg or higher, or
  • your diastolic blood pressure is 90 mm Hg or higher

At this stage, your doctor will recommend one or more medications to manage your blood pressure.

Medications aren’t the only treatment for this stage, though. Lifestyle habits are just as important in stage 2 hypertension as they are in the other stages.

Stage 2 hypertension

If your systolic blood pressure is 140 mm Hg or higher or your diastolic blood pressure is 90 mm Hg or higher, it’s considered stage 2 hypertension.

A blood pressure reading above 180/120 mm Hg indicates a serious health problem. The AHA refers to these high measurements as a “hypertensive crisis.” Blood pressure in this range requires urgent treatment, even if there are no accompanying symptoms.

Seek emergency medical treatment if you have blood pressure in this range. You may also have symptoms such as:

However, sometimes a high reading can occur temporarily, and then your numbers will return to normal. If your blood pressure measures at this level, your doctor will likely take a second reading after a few minutes.

If your second blood pressure reading is also above 180/120 mm Hg, you’ll need immediate treatment.

Hypertensive crisis

A blood pressure reading above 180/120 mm Hg is considered a hypertensive crisis and could be dangerous. You’ll need treatment as soon as possible.

Treatment for hypertension depends on how high your blood pressure is, as well as your lifestyle and risk factors.

For elevated blood pressure, the goal is to keep your blood pressure from developing into clinical hypertension. No medications are necessary at this stage. Your doctor may recommend:

For stage 1 hypertension, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes as mentioned above, as well as:

  • reducing your sodium intake
  • finding healthy ways to manage your stress
  • medication, if your blood pressure doesn’t improve after 1 month of lifestyle changes

For stage 2 hypertension, the typical treatment, in addition to a healthier lifestyle, is medication. Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following medications to help lower your blood pressure:

A hypertensive crisis requires immediate treatment. Medications may be given orally or intravenously (through an IV).

The most commonly used medications for a hypertensive crisis include:

If your blood pressure is in the hypertensive crisis range and you also have kidney failure, the following medications may be prescribed:

Even if you have healthy blood pressure numbers, it’s important to take preventive measures to keep your blood pressure within a normal range. This can help lower your risk of developing hypertension, heart disease, and other complications of high blood pressure.

As you age, prevention becomes even more important. Systolic pressure tends to creep up once you’re older than 50, and it’s far more important in predicting the risk of coronary heart disease and other conditions.

The following preventive measures may help lower or reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure:

  • Reduce your sodium (salt) intake. If you want to follow a heart-healthy diet, try not to consume more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. If you already have hypertension, may need to limit your sodium intake to less than 1,500 mg per day. Start by not adding salt to your foods. Limit processed foods as well, since they often have a lot of added sodium.
  • Exercise regularly. Consistency is key in maintaining a healthy blood pressure reading. It’s better to exercise 20 to 30 minutes every day than a few hours only on the weekends.
  • Maintain a moderate weight. If you’re already at a moderate weight, focus on maintaining it. If not, take steps to manage it. Losing even 5 to 10 pounds can make an impact on your blood pressure readings.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake. Talk with your doctor to see whether caffeine sensitivity plays a role in your blood pressure readings.
  • Manage your stress in healthy ways. Exercise, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or even 10-minute meditation sessions can help.
  • Limit your alcohol intake and quit smoking. Cut back on alcohol, or stop drinking alcohol altogether. It’s also important to quit or refrain from smoking. If quitting smoking or limiting alcohol is difficult, reach out to your doctor for support.

Untreated or poorly managed high blood pressure can cause serious and even life threatening issues. It can damage your blood vessels as well as your organs. The longer your hypertension goes untreated, the more it can damage your body and affect your health.

Potential complications of high blood pressure include:

  • Heart attack and stroke. Ongoing hypertension can cause your arteries to thicken and harden, which can increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
  • Heart failure. When your arteries are thickened and hardened, your heart needs to work harder to pump blood throughout your body. This can cause your heart muscle to thicken and eventually lead to heart failure.
  • Aortic aneurysm. Elevated blood pressure can cause your blood vessels to weaken and balloon out in the weakened spot, allowing an aneurysm to form. If an aneurysm ruptures, it can be life threatening.
  • Kidney failure. High blood pressure can cause damage to the arteries around your kidneys. This can affect how well your kidneys are able to filter your blood.
  • Vision loss. Elevated blood pressure can damage the blood vessels in your eyes.
  • Peripheral artery disease. Hardened arteries can make it more difficult for blood to reach parts of your body that are further away from your heart, like your legs and feet.
  • Sexual dysfunction. High blood pressure can lead to erectile dysfunction in men and lower libido in women.
  • Vascular dementia. Narrowed or hardened arteries can restrict blood flow to your brain, which, in turn, can increase your risk of a type of dementia known as vascular dementia. This type of dementia can also be caused by a stroke.

Low blood pressure is known as hypotension. In adults, a blood pressure reading of 90/60 mm Hg or below is often considered hypotension.

Hypotension can be dangerous because blood pressure that’s too low doesn’t supply your body and heart with enough oxygenated blood.

Some potential causes of hypotension can include:

Hypotension is usually accompanied by lightheadedness or dizziness. Talk with your doctor to find out the cause of your low blood pressure and what you can do to raise it.

Keeping your blood pressure within a normal range is key to preventing complications, such as heart disease and stroke.

A combination of healthy lifestyle habits and medications can help lower your blood pressure. If you have overweight or obesity, weight loss is also important in keeping your blood pressure numbers down.

Remember that a single blood pressure reading doesn’t necessarily classify your health. An average of blood pressure readings taken over time is the most accurate.

That’s why it’s important to have your blood pressure taken by a healthcare professional at least once a year. You may need more frequent follow-ups if your readings are consistently elevated.