Women and hypertension

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One in four Americans has high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, according to Dr. Kamaljeet Girn, medical director of the NorthShore Health Centers in Portage. A common misperception is that it is a greater problem for men than women. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, nearly half of those with hypertension are women. Furthermore, after the age of 65, with the onset of menopause, women are more likely to have the disease.

“Many times people don’t know they have high blood pressure. It can be asymptomatic and they only find out when they have a heart attack or stroke. It can also lead to enlargement of the heart or congestive heart failure,” Girn said. For women in particular, it can affect both mother and baby during pregnancy. “High blood pressure can restrict growth in the infant,” he said.

Pregnancy induced hypertension

Researchers have found that birth control pills can increase blood pressure in women, according to the American Heart Association. Being overweight and having a family history of high blood pressure can increase the risk, and smoking while using birth control pills can be a greater risk.

There is also pregnancy induced hypertension (PIH), which can develop during pregnancy and generally disappears after delivery. The AHA states that 6 to 8 percent of pregnancies develop PIH. Preeclampsia is a similar condition that appears around the 20th week of pregnancy, characterized by high blood pressure and increased protein in the urine due to kidney problems. This also can disappear after delivery.

Speaking with your doctor if you have high blood pressure and are thinking of becoming pregnant would make sense. If left untreated, high blood pressure during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight, premature birth, or kidney and liver problems for the mother, Girn said. If you’re taking medication for your high blood pressure, the American Heart Association strongly advises against getting pregnant while on ACE inhibitors or ARB drugs, which affect blood vessels and arteries, respectively. These drugs have been shown to be dangerous to moms and their babies.

Women are, however, at a higher risk of high blood pressure later in life, usually after menopause.

“Hypertension risk between males and females is typically less in females, but after 55 (or after menopause) the risk is higher in women. This has to do with a decline in estrogen levels,” Girn said. It is still unclear whether hormone replacement therapy would alleviate this risk. The National Institute of Health recommends having a doctor closely monitor your blood pressure during hormone replacement therapy.

Some are at more risk due to non-modifiable factors such as age, race and gender, Girn said. “Having a predisposition, such as if someone has high blood pressure in the family, puts you at risk. You can’t change those.”

He added though that modifiable factors such as obesity, activity level and diet can be easily changed.

“The major thing is lifestyle modification,” Girn said. “Reduce your salt intake and do 30 minutes of walking during the day, four to five times a week. If you lose 10 kg, you can reduce your (blood pressure measurement) 20 units. Also limiting alcohol and quitting smoking can help.”

For more information about women and high blood pressure, visit heart.org.

More information about NorthShore Health Centers is at northshorehealth.org.