Could High Blood Pressure Be a Good Thing?

Sometimes it seems that once you turn 65, the world wants to place you neatly in the "senior citizen" peg hole where you eat dinner at 4:00, take up a sudden interest in golf, and become vigilant about not letting your blood pressure get too high. But none of these stereotypes necessarily needs to be true, even the one about blood pressure. A new study shows that just like their varying interests in early bird specials and hobbies, seniors also have varying levels of normal when it comes to blood pressure readings. In fact, researchers now see evidence that having blood pressure that's higher than normal may actually be beneficial to older adults with certain health issues.  

What Is High Blood Pressure?

To understand this new finding, it's first important to know the facts about high blood pressure. For most adults, a normal blood pressure reading is 120/80. For older adults, though, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association recommend different measurements:

  • Adults age 65 to 79 should have a reading of 140/90 or less
  • Adults 80 and older should have a reading of 140/90 to 145/90

The health risks associated with high blood pressure are well known. Left untreated, it may put you at risk of heart attack, heart disease, peripheral artery disease, stroke, aortic dissection, angina, and atherosclerosis. You are also more likely to develop kidney damage, vision loss, memory loss, and erectile dysfunction.

Why Higher Blood Pressure Might Benefit Some People

In light of all those risks, higher blood pressure still might be OK for some older adults. Comparing healthy seniors with a strong walking pace to others in the same age group who had extreme difficulty walking, researchers found that those who were healthier and better able to walk were more likely to die if they suffered from high blood pressure than those who were frail and had high blood pressure. One theory for this seemingly counterintuitive finding is that if you are less healthy and have stiff blood vessels, you may need more pressure to keep your blood pumping to your organs.  

Comparing healthy seniors with a strong walking pace to others in the same age group who had extreme difficulty walking, researchers found that among faster walkers, those with elevated systolic blood pressure (≥140 mm Hg) had a greater adjusted risk of mortality compared with those without. Among slower walkers, neither elevated systolic nor diastolic blood pressure (≥90 mm Hg) was associated with mortality. In participants who did not complete the walk test, elevated blood pressures was strongly and independently associated with a lower risk of death. Their conclusion: Walking speed could be a simple measure to identify elderly adults who are most at risk for adverse outcomes related to high blood pressure.

What It Means to You

The bottom line to these findings is not that you can ignore high blood pressure if you're over 65 and have some health problems. Actually, one of the biggest takeaways from this research is that doctors now have some criteria to determine if a senior should take blood pressure medication. It was already known that these medications were sometimes dangerous for seniors. Now, doctors might use an evaluation of your ability to walk or complete other physical exercises in order to determine if you should take medication.

If, however, your doctor thinks your health is too frail, you may not be put on medication. That doesn't mean you should ignore your blood pressure. Instead, you should look for natural ways to improve your overall health. Some lifestyle changes that can make a difference include:

  • Eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day
  • Reducing salt intake
  • Eating less sugary foods
  • Choosing low-fat dairy products
  • Being physically active, even if it's just walking slowly for a few minutes a day to start
  • Losing weight if you are overweight


"Do You Really Have High Blood Pressure?" May 4, 2011. Web. August  9, 2012.

Odden, Michelle C., PhD. "Rethinking the Association of High Blood Pressure With Mortality in Elderly Adults: The Impact of Frailty." Archives of Internal Medicine. 10:1001 (2012). Web. August 9, 2012.