A woman gets her blood pressure measured by a nurse.The link between prehypertension, the precursor to high blood pressure, and heart disease was made stronger this month.

Researchers from the Wake Forest School of Medicine published a study that found that people with sustained prehypertension were 80 percent more likely than those with optimal blood pressure to be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.

This is a potentially deadly condition that causes fast and irregular heart rhythm.

Understanding Prehypertension

Prehypertension is a warning sign that alerts people to the risk of developing chronic high blood pressure if they don’t take timely steps to improve their lifestyle habits, according to the American Heart Association. The Association states that 59 million people in the U.S. have prehypertension.

High blood pressure increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, coronary heart disease, heart failure, blindness, dementia and kidney failure.

There’s no cure for high blood pressure, but there is treatment with diet, lifestyle habits and medications.

We know that starting as low as 115/75 mmHg, the risk of heart attack and stroke doubles for every 20-point jump in systolic blood pressure (the top number) or every 10-point rise in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) for adults ages 40 to 70.

The numbers to remember are 120 over 80 up to 139 over 89. That reading should be seen as a yellow light, the Association notes. According to guidelines, those numbers signal the presence of prehypertension.

Checking the pressure

Blood pressure should be measured during every physical exam, and more often if you have abnormal readings. Regular blood pressure checks are important because you can feel perfectly relaxed and healthy yet still have an elevated level.

A reading of 120 over 80 is where prehypertension begins, and 140 over 90 is where hypertension begins for most healthy adults. When the top (systolic) number is between 120 and 139, and/or the bottom (diastolic) number is between 80 and 89, your reading is in the prehypertension range. For people older than age 50, the systolic reading is more important.

If you have prehypertension

“Prehypertension is a warning sign,” said Thomas Boyden, MD, a cardiologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group. “It means that you’re at a greater risk of chronic high blood pressure. Depending on your blood pressure and risk factors for heart disease, you may only need to make a few lifestyle adjustments.”

Dr. Boyden, a heart disease prevention expert, said these small lifestyle changes can help delay progression to high blood pressure and the need for medications.

1. Start with exercise

Regular moderate aerobic activity, such as walking at more than a leisurely pace, has been shown to help lower blood pressure. Exercise will help keep your weight under control, too.

2. Eat right, really

Eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Limit the amount of salt and sodium in your diet. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone, no matter their age, ethnic background, or medical conditions, consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.

3. Watch your vices

Avoid alcohol, and if you smoke, quit. Learn relaxation techniques to help you better handle stress.

“There are many serious health conditions that come on with no warning signs,” Dr. Boyden said. “People with prehypertension have an opportunity to improve their health and lower their risk through simple changes to their daily routines.”