The information below is designed to help you understand what your latest blood pressure readings may mean for your health -- and to provide tips on what you can do to get or keep your blood pressure in a healthy zone.
NOTE: This information isn't a substitute for medical advice provided by your doctor. If you think you might have hypertension or pre-hypertension, be sure to discuss your blood pressure concerns with a doctor or nurse, who can help you factor in other important information, such as other medical problems you may have. In particular, the information below may not always apply to those who are very old, very frail, or have multiple chronic medical conditions. View the full blood pressure chart.
What a blood pressure reading of 120/88 means
Readings between 120/80 and 139/89 usually indicate PRE-HYPERTENSION or HIGH NORMAL, indicating you don't have hypertension but your blood pressure is higher than what experts consider optimal for most adults. Research studies suggest that people with pre-hypertension are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, compared to people with lower blood pressure. However, many experts currently don't recommend using medications to treat pre-hypertension, unless the patient also has other medical conditions that would benefit from lower blood pressure (such as heart failure or kidney disease).
Many people with pre-hypertension eventually develop true hypertension, so having blood pressure checked regularly is important.
If you're already on medications for high blood pressure, this level of blood pressure is often considered adequate control by most doctors, especially if your systolic blood pressure is between 120 and 130.
What to do if your blood pressure reading is 120/88
Make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your blood pressure concerns.
Ask your doctor to check for other conditions that can raise blood pressure, such as sleep apnea.
Ask your pharmacist or doctor if you're on any medications that can raise blood pressure (these can include NSAIDs as well as some antidepressants).
If you're already on medications for blood pressure, continue to take them as prescribed.
Optional: Because pre-hypertension eventually can develop into true hypertension, consider getting a home blood pressure monitor that uses an arm cuff, and check your BP occasionally to see if it's going into the hypertensive range. (Wrist and finger monitoring systems don't give accurate results.) Write down each reading, indicating the date and time, and bring this record to the doctor when you visit.
Make lifestyle changes:
Lose weight or maintain healthy weight.
Increase physical activity.
Lower salt intake to less than 2g per day (most Americans get 5 to 10 grams a day).
Notes from the geriatrician on the care of those ages 80 and over:
As long as there haven't been any concerns regarding falls or dizziness, most geriatricians consider this range to be a good level for blood pressure, even in those who are taking medications for hypertension.
However, as people get older or more chronically ill, they become more likely to develop side effects from blood pressure medications, such as dizziness when they first stand up. For this reason, if you're concerned about falls or dizziness, make sure your (or your loved one's) blood pressure has been checked for "postural" or "orthostatic" changes. Some older people feel better once their blood pressure medications have been reduced a bit.
Leslie Kernisan, MD Caring.com Senior Medical Editor
Robert Ostfeld, MD, M.Sc., FACC Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine Montefiore Medical Center
Carolyn Strimike, RN, MSN Cardiac Nurse-Practitioner at Women's Heart Center at St. Joseph's Medical Center Phoenix, Arizona Cofounder, HeartsStrong, a website for education about heart health Author: Take Charge: A Man's Road Map to a Healthy Heart