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: prehypertension.
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 other.
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 blood pressure.
"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.