One night back in May, I went to sleep with perfectly normal blood pressure, an unremarkable
120/80. The next day, I woke up in a blood pressure danger zone. What happened?
My blood pressure didn't spike overnight; instead, government officials issued
revised blood pressure guidelines that included a new category:
Anyone with a systolic (top number) reading of 120 or over, or
a diastolic (bottom) reading of 80 or over, now has prehypertension, which
means we're at increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Between those of us with newly-minted prehypertension (some 23%
of the population), and people who have full-blown hypertension (at least another
25%), danger-zone blood pressure is an emerging epidemic in this country.
Nearly half of all American adults over 18 are in one category or the
Are so many of us really so unhealthy? I'm only 36. I run three
miles every other day. (Well, okay, sometimes I skip a day.) I almost never eat
fried foods. I'm just one of thousands of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who
thought we were paragons of health until the new numbers were released. Are the
doctors just trying to scare us?
"This is a wake-up call. We've changed what normal is, because
we now know that blood pressure in the prehypertension range is not normal,"
says Sheldon Sheps, MD, medical editor of MayoClinic.com's High Blood Pressure
Center. He served on the committee that drafted the new guidelines.
"There is increasing evidence of the relationship between an
elevated blood pressure and future problems with heart attack and stroke. With
each level of increase in pressure, you get increased risk," he tells WebMD.
Consider these startling statistics:
Starting as low as 115/75, the risk of heart attack and stroke doubles for
every 20-point jump in systolic blood pressure or every 10-point rise in
diastolic blood pressure.
People with blood pressure levels between 120/80 and 140/90 - levels once
considered normal - have twice the risk of heart disease as those with
low blood pressure.
And people with blood pressure above 140/90 - the definition of high blood
pressure -have four times the risk of heart disease as people with low
"We've also learned that people age 55 and older, who currently
have normal blood pressure, have a 90% risk of developing high blood pressure
down the road," says Aram Chobanian, MD, Dean of Boston University School of
Medicine, who chaired the guidelines committee.