Why blood pressure matters

What the numbers mean and how to keep
hypertension in check

April 2023

This article is provided by Heart & Stroke.      

You’ve likely heard of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, but what is it? This often silent condition — you may not feel any symptoms — puts you at higher risk for stroke and heart disease.

What is blood pressure?

Simply put, blood pressure is the pressure or force that your pumping blood exerts on the walls of your arteries — arteries carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. High blood pressure can be caused by many factors, such as age, family history and having other health conditions such as kidney disease or diabetes. Pregnancy can also trigger high blood pressure. Also, lifestyle factors contribute, such as not getting enough exercise, being overweight, eating too much salt, smoking or drinking alcohol.

Why is blood pressure important? 

High blood pressure (hypertension) is the #1 risk factor for stroke and a major risk factor for heart disease. Hypertension that is not well controlled causes your heart to work harder to pump blood through your body. If left untreated, this can damage your arteries, which can reduce blood flow to some areas and may lead to clots that can cause stroke or a heart attack, or it can weaken the vessels until they break open and cause a hemorrhagic stroke. 
Hypertension affects one in four people in Canada. For many, there are no warning signs and usually people don’t “feel” that they have hypertension. That is why it’s so important to have your blood pressure checked. 

High blood pressure (hypertension) is the #1 risk factor for stroke and a major risk factor for heart disease.

Types of measurements

Checking your blood pressure is the only way to know if you have hypertension. When you check your blood pressure, there will be two numbers. The top number (the one before the slash) is systolic, which measures the pressure when your heart contracts and pushes blood. The bottom number is diastolic, which shows you the pressure when your heart is relaxed between heartbeats. (Remember, the diastolic number is always a smaller number than the systolic.)

What is your risk level?

Healthcare providers organize blood pressure risk in three categories: low, medium, and high. Overall, higher blood pressure numbers indicate a higher risk. Here are the target numbers for risk:

Level of Risk Systolic/Diastolic
Low Less than 120 / 80
Moderate 121-134 / 80 - 84
High More than 135 / 85
However, if you have diabetes, your care team will consider 130 / 80 or higher blood pressure to be high risk.


Hypertension affects approximately one in four people in Canada!

Checking your blood pressure

The best way to know if you have high blood pressure is to get checked by a healthcare provider using a blood pressure cuff. You can go to the doctor’s office, but pharmacies also offer blood pressure checks.

You can use a home device to check your blood pressure. When deciding on a blood pressure monitoring device, it’s important to choose one that will work for you, is easy to use, and provides you with accurate readings. 

The type of device and the size/fit should be considered. According to Heart & Stroke, you should opt for an automated blood pressure reader instead of a manual product and have it checked by a healthcare professional at least once a year to ensure it’s still offering reliable readings. Hypertension Canada has also put together a list of different blood pressure devices that you may find helpful. 

  • Consider watching this video for tips on how to get more accurate readings when you are having your blood pressure checked

If your blood pressure reading puts you at medium or high risk, it’s recommended you take another reading. If your blood pressure readings remain in the medium or high-risk zone on more than one occasion, consult with your healthcare provider for further assessment. 

 It’s a great idea to track your blood pressure readings over time. Write them down or keep a digital record on your phone.  

Tips on managing your blood pressure

If you have high blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe blood pressure medications to help lower it. You will also be asked to make lifestyle changes, if possible. They may include:

  • Reducing your salt intake. Highly processed foods are the biggest source of salt in diets. It’s recommended that adults eat just 2,300 milligrams a day of sodium, the equivalent of a teaspoon of salt.
  • Eating a balanced diet. The Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension — DASH Diet —helps lower blood pressure, and there are loads of meal ideas and recipes to help you. 
  • Exercise. Be active in bouts of 10 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous activity, for a goal of about
    150 minutes a week.
  • Limit substances. Quit smoking and vaping if you smoke and drink less alcohol — limit yourself to small amounts, pace yourself and drink plenty of water in between drinks.

To learn more about blood pressure and how to manage it, check out these resources from Heart & Stroke 

Since hypertension is a silent condition, you need to be tested regularly to make sure it’s being kept in check. Return to your doctor or pharmacist often to make sure your blood pressure stays within a healthy range to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

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