Heart Health and Pulse Pressure

When your healthcare provider checks your blood pressure, they place a cuff around your arm, pump it up to give your bicep a good squeeze, and then watch where the needle lands on the dial. The two numbers that result are your systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings. They're taken at opposite ends of the cardiac cycle and represent the highest and lowest blood pressure levels.

A blood pressure of 120/80 is read as "120 over 80." A reading of 120/80 is considered healthy and normal by the AHA.

Blood pressure is measured in units of mm Hg, which stands for millimeters of mercury.

  • The first number represents what's called systolic pressure, which indicates how much pressure your blood exerts against the walls of your arteries when your heart beats.
  • Your diastolic pressure, the second number, represents how much pressure is exerted between beats when the heart is at rest.

There's another measurement of heart health, however, that you may not be familiar with: pulse pressure.

Pulse pressure is calculated by taking the difference between systolic blood pressure and diastolic pressure. The pulse pressure reading for a person whose blood pressure is 120/80 would be 40.

Man checking pulse, close-up
RunPhoto / The Image Bank / Getty Images 

Why Calculate Pulse Pressure?

There's some evidence that pulse pressure is a better predictor of a person's heart health than systolic or diastolic blood pressure alone.

However, using pulse pressure to diagnose cardiac problems is complicated. Because it's determined using systolic and diastolic readings it really doesn’t really provide unique information. So your medical team would consider your pulse pressure in the context of other aspects of your blood pressure and health.

Some scenarios:

  • A person with a normal blood pressure reading of 120/80 will have a pulse pressure of 40. But a person with a pulse pressure of 40 won't necessarily have normal blood pressure. For instance, someone whose blood pressure reading is 140/100 also has a pulse pressure of 40, but that person's blood pressure would be considered elevated.
  • Saying that someone has an “elevated pulse pressure” is sometimes the same as saying that they have an “elevated systolic blood pressure,” which might not add additional information.
  • A person might have a normal systolic blood pressure, but low diastolic blood pressure, which would give an elevated pulse pressure. This, for example, is seen with a condition called aortic regurgitation.

What Pulse Pressure Can Mean

Sometimes pulse pressure does provide important information. There's research showing that pulse pressure can be valuable when looking at a patient’s overall risk profile.

Several studies have identified that high pulse pressure:

  • Causes more artery damage compared to high blood pressure with normal pulse pressure
  • Indicates elevated stress on a part of the heart called the left ventricle
  • Is affected differently by different high blood pressure medicines

So if you're diagnosed with high blood pressure, your healthcare provider may consider it when designing your overall treatment plan.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Heart Association. Understanding Blood Pressure Readings.

  2. Vaccarino V, Berger AK, Abramson J, et al. Pulse pressure and risk of cardiovascular events in the systolic hypertension in the elderly program. Am J Cardiol. 2001;88(9):980-6. doi:10.1016/s0002-9149(01)01974-9

  3. Dart AM. Should pulse pressure influence prescribing?. Aust Prescr. 2017;40(1):26-29. doi:10.18773/austprescr.2017.006

  4. Homan TD, Cichowski E. Physiology, Pulse Pressure. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-.

Additional Reading

By Craig O. Weber, MD
Craig O. Weber, MD, is a board-certified occupational specialist who has practiced for over 36 years.