High blood pressure forces the heart to work harder, leading to hardening of the arteries ( atherosclerosis) and eventually heart disease and stroke. A new report from the Nurse's Health Study highlights just how preventable high blood pressure is: the difference between women who develop high blood pressure and those who don't can be reduced to a few simple lifestyle habits, according to a study published July 29 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
One in three American adults has high blood pressure, including 38 million women. Blood pressure higher than 140/90 mm Hg is considered high (see What is Blood Pressure for more on what blood pressure numbers mean). For each rise in blood pressure of 20 (top number) or 10 (bottom number), a woman's risk of heart disease doubles.
It is well known that a healthy lifestyle can lower your chances of developing high blood pressure and prevent related heart problems. A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School followed more than 80,000 middle-aged women to see how common lifestyle factors predict who will develop high blood pressure in the future. Healthy women aged 27 to 44 completed surveys on their health habits and were monitored for 14 years. The researchers focused on 6 healthy habits that can prevent high blood pressure:
- Healthy weight (a Body Mass Index of 25 or less)
- Regular physical activity (at least 30 minutes a day of vigorous exercise)
- Eating a heart-healthy diet
- Getting enough folic acid (a B-vitamin) from supplements
- Safe alcohol use (one drink per day, but no more)
- Not using over-the-counter pain relievers more than once a week
Only 3 out of every 1000 women in the study had healthy levels of all 6 factors. These women were 80% less likely to develop high blood pressure than women with an unhealthy lifestyle. The more healthy lifestyle factors a woman had, the less likely she was to develop high blood pressure. Being overweight was the largest contributor to high blood pressure: women with a BMI of more than 25 were nearly five times more likely to develop it.
While previous research has shown that all these unhealthy factors can contribute to your heart risk, this study was the first to look at all these behaviors together and see how they combine to put women at risk. The main lesson from this study is that making a few simple lifestyle changes can go a long way to preventing high blood pressure and its harmful effects on your heart. A woman can cut her risk of developing high blood pressure in half by following the big three healthy lifestyle changes: maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular physical activity, and eating a heart-healthy diet.
Even if you already have high blood pressure, lifestyle changes and medications can get your blood pressure back to healthy levels. It's important to know your blood pressure numbers so you can take steps to control it. Because high blood pressure has no symptoms, having your blood pressure measured is the only way to find out if you have it. Most women should have their blood pressure measured at least once every 2 years—once a year if your blood pressure is already slightly above normal ( prehypertension). Your doctor may recommend that you have your blood pressure checked more often if you have unhealthy habits that are putting you at risk.
Source: Forman JP, Stampfer MJ, Curhan GC. Diet and lifestyle risk factors associated with incident hypertension in women. JAMA. 2009;302:401-11.