Blood pressure readings highlight two numbers: systolic and diastolic pressure. As these numbers rise, so does the risk for major health issues.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), about 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. has high blood pressure. That’s an alarming number given that high blood pressure is a significant risk factor for stroke, heart and kidney failure.

The first step to addressing a potential problem is to gain an understanding of the problem. Blood pressure readings are provided as a ratio of two numbers. For example, your blood pressure reading might be presented as 118/74, which would read as 118 over 74. These numbers represent your systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Systolic, the first number in the ratio, measures the pressure in arteries when the heart beats, or contracts. Since the pressure is recorded during a contraction, this number is always the higher of the two. Diastolic pressure, the second number, measures the pressure between heart beats when the heart relaxes. The following chart outlines the AHAs defined blood pressure categories based upon these readings:

Systolic measures the pressure in arteries when the heart beats, or contracts. Diastolic pressure measures the pressure between heart beats when the heart relaxes.

Systolic and diastolic pressure tend to rise with age due to hardening of the heart, arteries and blood vessels over time. Lifestyle issues such as obesity or a poor diet can also contribute to increasing blood pressure.

Because blood pressure can vary based upon a number of factors that include physical activity, one high reading doesn’t necessarily mean that you have high blood pressure. If you have a high blood pressure reading, you should review the result with your doctor. They may ask you to take a few more tests over a defined period of time before giving an official diagnosis and starting a treatment plan.

There are several ways you can help control and lower pre-hypertension or high blood pressure yourself. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends the following actions:

  1. Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Engage in moderate-level physical activity for 30 minutes several days each week.
  3. Stick to a healthy eating plan that is low in fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, veggies and low-fat dairy.
  4. Reduce your sodium intake.
  5. Limit your alcohol consumption.

Your doctor can prescribe medications to help control high blood pressure, but the best way to treat it is to adopt lifestyle changes that work in tandem with any prescriptions that your doctor recommends.