What is pulse pressure? How important is pulse pressure to overall health?

Answer From Rekha Mankad, M.D.

Blood pressure readings are given in two numbers.

  • The top number is the maximum pressure the heart exerts while beating (systolic pressure).
  • The bottom number is the amount of pressure in the arteries between beats (diastolic pressure).

The top number (systolic) minus the bottom number (diastolic) is the pulse pressure. For example, if the resting blood pressure is 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), the pulse pressure is 40 — which is considered a healthy pulse pressure. Generally, a pulse pressure greater than 40 mm Hg is unhealthy.

Measuring pulse pressure may help a health care provider predict the risk of a heart event, including a heart attack or stroke. A pulse pressure greater than 60 is considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, especially for older adults.

Stiffness of the body's largest artery (aorta) is the leading cause of increased pulse pressure in older adults. High blood pressure or fatty deposits on the walls of the arteries (atherosclerosis) can make the arteries stiff. The greater the pulse pressure, the stiffer and more damaged the blood vessels are thought to be.

Treating high blood pressure usually reduces pulse pressure. Following a healthy lifestyle is also important. Heart-smart strategies include getting regular exercise, not smoking, limiting alcohol and reducing the amount of salt in the diet.


Rekha Mankad, M.D.

March 01, 2022