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Blood pressure control important for women

High blood pressure can set the stage for heart attacks, strokes and more. But there's also a lot that women can do to take control of blood pressure and protect their health.

Ladies: You've probably heard about the threat of heart disease and the importance of controlling your risk. Here's something you can do that will really make a difference—pay attention to your blood pressure.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the health risks that women are "most empowered to fix," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist and spokeswoman for the American Heart Association (AHA). By getting regular blood pressure checks and taking steps to prevent or control the condition, women can help avoid the dangers of heart disease and more.

"One of the easiest things you can do to start your heart disease prevention program is to get your blood pressure checked, because so many women are affected by hypertension and it's so easy to treat," Dr. Goldberg says. "And if you have high blood pressure and lower it, you not only reduce your risk for heart attack but also for stroke."

Why it's dangerous

High blood pressure rarely causes symptoms, so you could have it without even knowing it, Dr. Goldberg says. Meanwhile, too much pressure against your artery walls makes the heart work harder, damages arteries and organs, and leads to heart attacks and strokes—conditions that kill more women than breast cancer does each year.

Other consequences of uncontrolled hypertension can include heart failure, kidney problems and blindness.

What makes blood pressure rise?

Many things can contribute to high blood pressure. And some of the risk factors are unique to women, including:

Menopause. After menopause, a woman's risk for high blood pressure increases considerably, according to the AHA. In fact, after age 65, women are more likely than men to develop the condition. One reason may be the loss of estrogen. As hormone levels decrease, arteries become less flexible, according to Dr. Goldberg.

"Other things that happen around menopause also contribute to high blood pressure, such as weight gain," she says.

Birth control pills. Oral contraceptives can raise blood pressure in some women, especially those who are overweight, had high blood pressure during pregnancy, or have a family history of high blood pressure or mild kidney disease, according to the AHA.

If you plan to take the pill, the AHA recommends that you have your blood pressure measured and continue to have it checked every six months.

Pregnancy. Some women develop high blood pressure during pregnancy, according to the AHA. In the most serious cases, a dangerous but treatable condition called pre-eclampsia develops.

Also, in some women who already have high blood pressure, the condition can worsen during pregnancy. For these reasons and more, early and regular prenatal care checkups are key.

Of course, other key risk factors are just as important to women as they are to men. They include:

  • Family history. If your parents had high blood pressure, you're prone to the condition.
  • Diet. "People eat more salt than they need," Dr. Goldberg says. Too much salt and sodium—most of which comes from processed and canned foods—can raise blood pressure.
  • Weight. If you're overweight, your risk for high blood pressure rises.

Also, among African Americans, high blood pressure often occurs at a younger age and is more severe compared to Caucasians.

Know where you stand

When you add it up, there's good reason to take blood pressure seriously, starting with regular checkups. The AHA recommends having one annually.

If your blood pressure is elevated, you may be able to lower it with lifestyle changes, such as following a healthy diet, cutting back on salt, exercising and controlling your weight.

However, some people also need medicines. "High blood pressure is one of the places where we can make the greatest impact," Dr. Goldberg says. "We have lots of medicines that have been around for a long time and are very effective."

reviewed 9/3/2019

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