Hypertension, the ‘silent killer’: Top tips to help you get an accurate blood pressure reading

  • Hypertension kills millions of people each year.
  • The disease affects both young and older people.
  • People often make mistakes when measuring their blood pressure – we break them down for you.

You may have hypertension, or high blood pressure, and not even know it. The disease, often called the "silent killer" – because the person may not have any noticeable symptoms – is common among both young and older people. A study highlights that it affects one in eight adults between 20 and 40 years of age. 

If left unchecked and untreated, it can lead to a large number of serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, and kidney and brain damage. 

In South Africa, 46% of women and 44% of men aged 15 years and older have hypertension. Globally, this figure is 1.28 billion adults. While there is no cure, certain medications and lifestyle changes can lead to a dramatic improvement – yet 700 million people are living without treatment.  

According to the World Health Organization, hypertension causes premature death in one in four men and one in five women worldwide. This stresses the need for regular screening. This World Hypertension Day, the theme is: Measure Your Blood Pressure Accurately, Control It, Live Longer. 

Here are a few simple tips to help you get an accurate blood pressure reading.

Avoid caffeine before a reading

Don't drink coffee or any caffeinated beverages 30 minutes before your reading. Studies have shown that this can lead to a slight increase in blood pressure.

Avoid smoking before a reading

Like caffeine, tobacco use can also cause an increase in heart rate, and consequently increase your blood pressure. For this reason, you should avoid smoking 30 minutes to an hour before having your blood pressure checked.

Empty your bladder

Several studies have shown that having a full bladder can raise your blood pressure by 10 points.

Try to relax

Your back and feet should be supported and your feet uncrossed. According to the American Medical Association, an unsupported back and feet can add a few points to your blood pressure reading.

Don’t talk during the reading

You might feel the urge to fill the awkward silence between you and your healthcare provider, but doing so can make a difference to your result.

At-home readings: Use a clinically validated device

When taking your blood pressure at home, ensure you’re using a clinically validated device. This will assure you that you’ve obtained an accurate blood pressure reading, notes the Pan American Health Organization. You should also get the correct cuff size, put it around your bare arm, and keep your arm at heart level to get an accurate measurement.

Experts at Harvard University also advise you to have your blood pressure measured in both arms at least once because the reading in one arm (usually the right arm) may be higher. 

Systolic, diastolic pressure

The number that appears at the top of the reading is called the systolic pressure (the pressure generated by each heartbeat). This occurs during the contraction of the heart muscle, which is called a systole, as Dr Kathleen Coetzee explained to Health24.

The diastolic blood pressure appears at the bottom, and this is the pressure between the heartbeats when the heart is resting.

The systolic and diastolic blood pressures are measured in millimetres of mercury, and 120/80mm Hg is the optimal blood pressure.

When should you be worried?

The American Heart Association labels the following as high blood pressure:

  • Hypertension stage 1: When the systolic mm Hg is 130 – 139 or the diastolic mm Hg is 80 – 89. Your doctor will likely prescribe lifestyle changes and may add blood pressure medication based on your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Hypertension stage 2: When the systolic mm Hg is 140 or higher or the diastolic mm Hg is 90 or higher. Your doctor will likely prescribe a combination of blood pressure medications as well as lifestyle changes.
  • Hypertensive crisis (in other words, contact your doctor immediately): When the systolic mm Hg is higher than 180 and/or the diastolic mm Hg is higher than 120.

Making lifestyle changes that matter

Remember, if you have hypertension, there are certain lifestyle changes that have been proven to lower blood pressure. These include eating a well-balanced diet low in salt, limiting alcohol intake, being physically active, taking steps to manage stress, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and taking your medication.

READ | What is blood pressure? A quick explanation

READ | You can't ignore white-coat hypertension - it's more dangerous than suspected

READ | Want extra years of life? Keep your blood pressure tightly controlled

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