Getting at the Heart of Blood Pressure

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Fortunately, when nurses take my husband’s or my blood pressure, they simply say it’s good. When the occasional nurse quotes the actual numbers at us instead, we don’t pay much attention. High blood pressure is not among our health concerns. That’s why we don’t know what the numbers mean.

The subject came up today when we visited the doctor’s office. When the nurse left the room, my husband and I shared our profound mutual blood-pressure ignorance, causing me to look the topic up. If you know all too much about blood pressure, first of all, I’m sorry, and secondly, maybe you should move on to another blog, or skip down to the etymology at the end of this post if your expertise doesn’t extend to etymologies.

The top number in a blood pressure reading indicates the force exerted against your arteries when the heart beats. The bottom number shows the pressure between beats. A normal top number is ideally less than 120, and the bottom should be less than 80. Of course, your blood pressure can also go too low, but that’s a rarer problem. These numbers oversimplify because normal numbers vary by age and gender. as this chart shows.

I’m hoping that by looking this subject up one more time and writing about it here I will henceforth remember the normal numbers and their meaning. It seems like something an adult person should know, which is probably what you’re thinking.

As always, though, the words themselves are the interesting part. The top number is called systolic and the bottom is called diastolic. I knew that much but didn’t know the words’ meanings. The Greek root of systolic means “draw together, contract.” That’s your heart beating. As you might guess, diastolic‘s root means “expand, dilate.” That’s your heart at rest, between beats, the chambers filling up with blood to be pumped out with the next beat.

The English majors and poets among you might know that these terms also apply to versification. A systole is a long syllable artificially shortened (i.e., contracted) in order to fit the meter of a line, and a diastole is a short syllable expanded, like your heart at rest, into a long syllable.

Here’s an example of diastole:

know thee well; a serviceable villain,
— (Shakespeare, King Lear 4.6.251)

The bold type indicates long, or accented, syllables. The “a” in serviceable is a short syllable, as we normally pronounce the word. Shakespeare cheats here by putting it in a spot where he needs a long syllable to fit the iambic rhythm.

I know, I’ve gone too far. You’ve lost interest. Don’t worry about the literary terms. Let your takeaway be that Shakespeare himself wasn’t above cutting corners.

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8 Responses to Getting at the Heart of Blood Pressure

  1. Kathy says:

    Sarah–Of course we know that “hyper” means over, above, too much. The origin of “tension” is stretching. Too much blood-vessel stretching. I know you knew this :–)

  2. Sarah Becker says:

    1. We all know that Shakespeare was a cheat: he stole all of his plots from earlier writers!
    2. Latin, Greek: how many languages will you be teaching us?
    3. Let’s not get into how many medications I’m on for hypertension. I went from a doctor saying my b.p. was low and did I work out? to all of a sudden the following year saying that I had hypertension. Go figure!

  3. Kathy says:

    David–Very wise advice! Thanks for reading!

  4. Kathy says:

    Michael–So many consonants! Maybe that’s what gave you a turn!

  5. Kathy says:

    Fran–What a nice thing to say! Thank you!

  6. David C Ewing says:

    I liked this blog. I record most all my blood pressure and weight reading when provided by physicals and Dr. appointments. I noticed that when I am 20 lbs lighted, my BP numbers get into a more healthy range. It’s an incentive for me to pass on the 2nd dounut or even not partake in the 1st one. Love, you blog. David

  7. Fran Lissemore says:

    I never lose interest in your words of wonder and wisdom, Kathy. Really. Thanks for the etymology and connection to poetry. Who knew??

  8. Michael Whitely says:

    I was sure there was something wrong with my systolic today, or at least my diastolic, but it turned out to be a syzygy that was causing the problem.

    I had to sit down in a coffee shop because I thought I was having a turn. I couldn’t focus and I wasn’t walking properly. If I’d been a cow I would have had a good lie down. We’d had a total eclipse and I didn’t realise the light disappears for about an hour and a half before the total eclipse, which only lasts about 50 seconds.

    By the time I came out of the coffee shop I had missed the main event, but I did discover a new word: S for syzygy.

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