No matter what your age is, if you’ve been to a doctor, you’ve certainly had your blood pressure read before. After the doctor was taking your reading, they probably also shared the results with you in the form of two numbers, too. If your numbers were in the normal range, it’s likely you didn’t think twice about what they could mean. Or, if your reading meant high blood pressure, you were certainly alerted that you should be making a few lifestyle changes — though you may not recall what your numbers were in this instance, either.

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to your health. Here’s what your blood pressure numbers are really measuring.

The first number is your systolic blood pressure

Nurse checking a patient’s blood pressure | Zinkevych/iStock/Getty Images

The first (and higher) number on your reading represents your systolic blood pressure. To understand what this number means, it’s important to remember that the blood flowing from your heart isn’t always constant, Verywell notes. Blood is being ejected into your arteries every time your heart beats, and this causes the pressure in the arteries to rise. Your systolic blood pressure is the measurement of the amount of pressure against your artery walls from the ejected blood.

There are certain times in your day when you may find your systolic blood pressure is higher than usual. The publication notes if you’re stressed, exercising, or in any situation where your heart is beating abnormally fast, this can cause it to rise — though these normal situations aren’t cause for concern. If your systolic pressure is lower than normal, it’s also typical to feel lightheaded or dizzy.

The second number is your diastolic blood pressure

The bottom number (and also the lesser of the two) is known as your diastolic blood pressure. Healthline explains this number is determined by the pressure that occurs when your heart is between beats. More specifically, when your heart is finished contracting, Verywell says, the organ relaxes for a moment as it prepares to fill back up with blood. The blood pressure during this moment when the organ is relaxing is what’s being measured.

For many older folks with high blood pressure, it’s actually their diastolic blood pressure that’s higher than average rather than their systolic blood pressure (though this isn’t always the case). If either number is too high — not just both at the same time — it can be a major threat to your health.

The blood pressure numbers you should be shooting for

Stethoscope and blood pressure monitor |

So, what’s the perfect blood pressure? Ideally, anything slightly below 120/80 is right in the normal range, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If your systolic number is between 120-139, or your diastolic number is anywhere from 80-89, this signals you’re in a prehypertensive state. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed for high blood pressure in your future, but it does mean you should start making lifestyle changes now so it doesn’t rise to unhealthy levels in the future.

As for high blood pressure, your systolic number needs to be over 140 and/or your diastolic number should be over 90. By this point, medical intervention, like medication, may be necessary to protect your heart and other organs that could be at risk.

The best way to get an accurate reading

Knowing your blood pressure starts with getting an accurate reading. Verywell reminds us your blood pressure fluctuates greatly throughout the day depending on your mental and physical state. It’s vital to control as many outside influences as possible so you can understand what your baseline blood pressure really is.

For this reason, take a few moments before a blood pressure reading to sit in a calm and warm environment. If you start to stress out about the reading, this can greatly influence the numbers, so put yourself in a good mental place prior to the assessment. If you do have one blood pressure reading that seems abnormally high, don’t worry too much — aim to take it again another time when you feel you can better control the external factors.

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