If you have a perfectly normal blood pressure of 120 over 80, guess what – it's not considered perfectly normal anymore.
Last year, medical experts issued revised blood pressure guidelines that included a new category: prehypertension.
If you have a systolic reading (the top number) of 120 or more, or a diastolic reading (the bottom number) of 80 or more, you now have prehypertension. This also means you're at a greater risk for heart attack and stroke, according to the 7th Report of the Joint National Committee on the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure.
Between people with prehypertension and those with actual hypertension, high blood pressure is truly a national epidemic. According to estimates by the American Heart Association, high blood pressure affects one out of three people in the U.S.
If you add in those individuals who now have prehypertension, it means that more than half of the people in the country are at greater risk for heart attack and stroke. What's worse, with each level of increase in your blood pressure, you also increase your risk for a heart attack or a stroke.
• Your risk of heart attack and stroke doubles for every 20-point increase in your systolic blood pressure or for every 10-point increase in your diastolic blood pressure.
• If your blood pressure is between 120 over 80 and 140 over 90, your risk of developing heart disease is twice as high as people with low blood pressure.
• If your blood pressure is higher than 140 over 90, your risk of developing heart disease is four times as high as people with low blood pressure.
Sonia Doolin of Columbia, age 54, knows all too well about the consequences of high blood pressure. "I had a heart attack at the age of 39, and then I had triple bypass surgery at the age of 46," she says.
Although Sonia has high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, she has made the diet and lifestyle changes that enable her to live a full and enjoyable life. In fact, she is one of the hospital's most active Red Dress Ambassadors, volunteers who help spread the word about women and heart disease.
Another Red Dress Ambassador is living proof of an equally unnerving thought: you still may be at risk of heart disease even if your blood pressure is normal. Maureen Cates of Irmo had normal blood pressure and no risk factors for heart disease, yet she had a heart attack two years ago at age 41 and bypass surgery a year later.
"It came as a complete surprise to me," says Maureen, who experienced the first symptoms of her heart attack while playing golf with her husband and two sons. "It was like a bolt out of the blue – just something I never expected."