We all know that blood pressure is one of the most important indicators of overall health and physical condition. After all, that’s why they call it a “vital sign.” But as we get older, our blood pressure tends to rise. In the past, doctors often chose not to treat high blood pressure in older adults, since it was considered “normal” for blood pressure to rise with age. However, more recent research has shown that it is important to control blood pressure for individuals of all ages, since normal blood pressure contributes to lowered risk of stroke, healthy kidney function, healthier hearts, and many other enhancements to health in the later stages of life.
What Happens to Your Circulatory System as You Get Older
As with many organs and tissues of the body, the arteries become more rigid as you get older. This means that they offer increased resistance to the heart as it pumps the blood through them into the body’s tissues. Over time, this increased resistance, if left unattended, can cause the heart’s muscles to thicken, making them less pliant and efficient as a pumping mechanism.
The measures of blood pressure, the systolic and diastolic pressure readings (the first and second numbers in a blood pressure reading), normally change with age—but often in opposite directions. Because the heart is required to pump harder to move blood through stiffening arteries, the systolic reading—the pressure at which blood first begins to move through the artery pinched shut by the inflated cuff on the sphygmomanometer—gets higher, because the blood is being forced through harder.
The diastolic reading—the pressure when the blood flow returns to full volume as the air pressure is reduced in the cuff of the sphygmomanometer—often gets lower, due in part to the artery’s reduced pliability, meaning that it takes longer to fully relax and allow blood flow to resume. The difference between your systolic and diastolic readings—your pulse pressure—is an important measure of your arterial health. The wider the difference, the stiffer your arteries are, and the more carefully you need to monitor your blood pressure.
Why Normal Blood Pressure is Important at Any Age
Even if you feel fine, high blood pressure can still harm you. It can cause damage to organs and tissues, can lead to decreased mental function and loss of memory, and is a principal cause of strokes. As already mentioned, it can also lead to reduced heart function, or even heart attack. Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you shouldn’t monitor and treat high blood pressure. Find out what a normal blood pressure is for your age and condition, and work on maintaining it.