Women need to take their blood pressure seriously, doctors have warned.
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke – and cardiologists from the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) have highlighted the risk of heart disease increases at lower blood pressure levels for women in comparison to men.
Professor Angela Maas, emeritus director of the Women’s Cardiac Health Programme, Radboud University Medical Centre, the Netherlands, said: “My message to all women is to take your blood pressure seriously, know your values [blood pressure readings] and convince your doctor that if it is too high then you need treatment. Don’t underestimate the long-term effects of high blood pressure.”
Prof. Maas added: “One of the most important consequences of hypertension in women is a type of heart failure in which the heart muscle is stiff.”
This can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, fluid retention and shortness of breath later in life – and prevention is vital as there are “few treatments” available, Prof. Maas pointed out.
High blood pressure is also associated with dementia and recognised globally as the most important risk factor for death in women.
A midlife priority
Doctors are urging women not to wait until damage has set in later in life to think about their blood pressure.
Experts debunked the misconception that hypertension does not cause symptoms. Women may notice things such as palpitations, pain in the chest or between the shoulder blades, headaches, shortness of breath, tiredness and hot flushes – which in midlife could be mistaken for menopause, stress or anxiety.
Annual checks from age 40 or 50
High blood pressure is anything from 140/90mmHg upwards. However, people with co-existing health conditions may be at risk from lower levels than this – and Prof. Maas said “discussions are under way about whether normal blood pressure values should be lower in women compared to men”.
More research is needed before any official changes to guidelines are made. But the experts advised women to get their blood pressure checked annually from age 40 if they have a family history of hypertension, or if they had high blood pressure during pregnancy. Having migraines from their teenage years, and having two or more miscarriages could also mean women are predisposed to hypertension.
Women with no family history or other indicators that they could be at increased risk should get annual checks from age 50, they advised.
Can you prevent high blood pressure?
Some people may be more predisposed to developing high blood pressure than others, but generally speaking, lifestyle measures play a key part in preventing hypertension.
Sindy Jodar, a senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said “lack of exercise, immense weight gain, salt consumption and excessive alcohol consumption” are among the most common risk factors for high blood pressure.
Eat a heart-healthy diet
Medical nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer said: “Studies suggest that following the DASH diet (Dietary Approach to Stopping Hypertension) can help.
“The diet is based around a healthy Mediterranean way of eating, which includes eating olive oil, garlic, fruit, vegetables, nuts, low-fat dairy products and lean meat, with reduced intakes of salt, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and refined carbohydrates.”
Watch your salt intake
Excess salt consumption is a leading cause of high blood pressure, Ms Jodar noted. Guidelines advise adults consume less than 6g of salt per day, equivalent to about a teaspoon.
However, many foods already contain salt, so adding it to meals and cooking could easily mean you’re consuming too much. Try adding herbs and spices for flavour instead – and check labels, particularly on processed foods, which often contain high levels of added ‘hidden’ salt.
Research suggests regular exercise can be immensely beneficial for heart health, cholesterol and blood pressure.
“It’s important to find a way of exercising that works for you. You might find it helpful to start off with a small amount of activity and build it up gradually,” suggested Dr Richard Oakley, associate director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society.
It’s recommended that adults aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity. Workouts that include resistance and strength exercise are also advised at least twice a week.
Find ways to manage stress
Ms Jodar explained that stress “does not directly” cause high blood pressure (although high stress can temporarily cause it to spike), but added: “Stress in the long term can also cause us to take up unhealthy habits – eating comfort food, smoking, drinking or not exercising – which can then push up your blood pressure. If left untreated, you may find yourself suffering from strokes, heart disease, heart attacks and vascular dementia.”
Some degree of stress is a normal part of life and it isn’t always harmful. But it’s important to recognise when stress is becoming chronic or problematic and take steps to help manage it in ways that work for you. Regular exercise, setting aside time to switch off and relax, and things like mindfulness and meditation can work wonders.
Speak to your GP
While lifestyle measures are important, medication is sometimes required to help manage high blood pressure. Speak to your doctor if you have any concerns.
How often do you check your blood pressure? Let us know in the comments section below.
– With PA
Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.