Ladies, this one is for you. Unfortunately, when it comes to heart health and disease development, women and men are not created equal. New research in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Cardiology on gender differences in blood pressure patterns adds to the mountain of literature building over the last twenty years that shows the differences in how men and women develop heart disease.
Heart health and high blood pressure
High blood pressure is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. In fact, high blood pressure accounts for one in five deaths in American women. One study indicated that women experience a sharper increase in blood pressure than men. This increase started when women were in their twenties, and blood pressure continued to rise over the course of their lifetime. These findings are similar to other studies, as documented in an expert analysis by the American College of Cardiology (ACC).
According to ACC’s analysis, women find themselves at risk for rising blood pressure due to hormone levels and other body changes from such conditions as polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, pregnancy, and gestational diabetes (diabetes developed during pregnancy). In later years, the decline of estrogen levels from menopause may increase the risk for hypertension.
Hypertension has gained a reputation as the “silent killer,” and the lack of visible or recognizable symptoms can leave it undiagnosed for years. Maintaining healthy blood pressure levels is essential to support overall heart health. Read up on five ways you can focus on heart health.
5 ways to support healthy blood pressure levels and promote heart health:
1. Know your numbers.
Routine blood pressure screenings can help you keep tabs on your blood pressure and identify any concerns. In addition to your primary care physician, many dentists, eye doctors, physical therapists, and other healthcare providers begin each visit with a blood pressure check. Pharmacies, community programs, and some churches offer tools for blood pressure monitoring. As technology continues to advance, even some smartphones and watches can capture and store logs of blood pressure readings.
2. Find your favorite way to move your body and do it every day.
Running, jogging, speed-walking, biking, swimming, dancing — the options to get your heart pumping are endless. Find enjoyable ways to incorporate physical activity most days of the week to make your heart stronger and better able to handle its daily duties. Women who are physically active can help support healthy blood pressure levels and promote overall heart health.
3. Choose high-quality fuel for your body.
Just like premium gas can make your car run more efficiently, your body needs a steady intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, like fish, lean meats, nuts, and beans, to function properly. Try to limit foods that are high in saturated fats, salt, or added sugars. Eating patterns such as the Mediterranean or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diets, consistently ranked #1 and #2 respectively by US News and World Report for overall health, have been proven to have positive impacts on heart health.
Whether you choose to follow a specific diet pattern or not, make sure that most of your meals and snacks are made up of heart-healthy foods.
4. Avoid smoking and limit alcohol.
Smoking is a known risk factor for several heart conditions. Although the particular connection between smoking and high blood pressure is still unclear, women who smoke are at increased risk of developing heart disease and other chronic conditions. Women who already have high blood pressure and smoke are at even greater risk. Yet, the stress of quitting (and the often-accompanied weight gain) can negatively impact blood pressure. Visit Smokefree.gov to find resources, how to quit guides, text message support, apps, and more.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting alcohol intake to one standard drink per day – that’s 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. Too much alcohol may raise your blood pressure.
5. Prioritize mental health.
Juggling work, family, volunteer activities, exercise, meal planning, and everything else in your day-to-day life can get overwhelming. It’s pretty common for women to carry the mental load of running the household – the behind-the-scenes planning and problem-solving that keeps your family on top of their game. This can take a significant toll on your mental and physical health. When you are stressed, your body releases hormones that make your heart beat faster and may cause a temporary rise in blood pressure. There’s no evidence that stress alone contributes to long-term high blood pressure, but it’s still important to find heart-healthy ways to manage your stress.
Find activities that promote relaxation. These can include yoga, massage, meditation, or engaging in fitness and recreation activities. Try to schedule a little bit of “me time” a few times per week.
So, where should you start?
It takes time to develop new habits. Start by setting just one small goal for yourself. Think about adding a vegetable to dinner each night, taking a walk after work each day, or starting your day with 10 minutes of morning meditation to relax. And remember: you’re not alone. Your healthcare provider, local dietitian, family, and friends are on your side to help you navigate your journey to heart health – one step at a time.