About one in five women suffer from high blood pressure – which can lead to serious health conditions. Dr Cassy Richmond explains how simple lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of developing hypertension
In fact, according to research, as many as 3.7 million Aussies over the age of 25 are living with high blood pressure (hypertension). This whopping statistic means that about one in five women in Australia have it – and many don’t know it.
Hypertension is a risk factor for several serious conditions. It can lead to cardiovascular disease, and is also an important cause of kidney disease and blindness.
The danger of having high blood pressure is that it rarely causes symptoms. Because of this, experts often refer to hypertension as a silent killer disease. But minimising your risk isn’t as difficult as you might imagine.
High blood pressure
It is normal for your blood pressure to vary at different times throughout the day. For example, it typically becomes lower when you are at rest or asleep, and elevates when you are stressed or doing physical activity. Caffeine can also cause your blood pressure to rise transiently.
However, when resting blood pressure remains persistently high (say, over 140/90), hypertension may be present. This is important because it means the heart must work harder to effectively pump blood around the body.
With time, if hypertension is not properly controlled the cardiac muscle may become enlarged, and the heart may weaken. Blood vessels throughout the body may also become damaged. This leads to cardiovascular disease – and may increase the risk of heart attack, as well as stroke and peripheral vascular disease (which causes poor circulation in the legs). Uncontrolled hypertension is also a leading cause of chronic kidney disease.
What causes hypertension?
There are two main forms of hypertension: primary and secondary. Primary hypertension (which is also called essential hypertension) is by far the most common form of hypertension, with over 90 per cent of all cases being attributed to this type. Although the exact cause of primary hypertension is not known, several risk factors for the disease have been identified.
These include: family history of hypertension; obesity and lack of exercise; excessive salt intake; excessive alcohol intake; and stress over an extended period of time. The risk of developing hypertension also increases with age.
The remaining 10 per cent of people with hypertension have secondary hypertension. This type of hypertension occurs as a complication of another disease process. For example, kidney disease and thyroid disease can lead to hypertension.
Certain medications can also cause it (for example, some oral contraceptive pills can lead to secondary hypertension – which is why your GP will check your blood pressure each time she fills out a script for you).
Gestational hypertension (high blood pressure in pregnancy) is a well known example of secondary hypertension. It occurs in some pregnant women, usually after the 20th week. If uncontrolled, it may lead to eclampsia, a serious complication during pregnancy.
For this reason, blood pressure is checked for all women during every doctor’s appointment throughout pregnancy. Thankfully, gestational hypertension typically resolves once the baby is delivered.
The good news is that hypertension is generally a preventable, easily detected and treatable condition. As a general guide, it is advisable to have regular blood pressure checks at least every two years. A good way to remember this is to ask your doctor to check your blood pressure each time you have a Pap smear test.
If you have certain risk factors for hypertension, or other cardiovascular risk factors, your blood pressure should be monitored more frequently. To find out how often you should have your blood pressure measured, it is best to discuss this with your local doctor.
Reducing your risk
We can all do something to minimise our risk of developing hypertension. A crucial starting point is to look at our lifestyle factors. In fact, there is strong evidence that doing regular physical activity can significantly lower elevated blood pressure.
It is therefore recommended that we all do about 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week (unless you have a medical reason not to – but you must be honest with yourself on this one!). Walking the dog or pushing baby in the pram is ideal.
We know that a healthy diet should include plenty of fruit and vegies, a range of wholegrain foods, fish and moderate amounts of lean meat. In addition, it is also recommended that we limit our salt intake.
This is because research suggests that salt restriction will help to lower blood pressure for those with hypertension, as well as control blood pressure for those who haven’t yet developed it. Limiting the salt in your diet can be achieved by choosing ‘low salt’ and ‘no added salt’ products, as well as putting away the salt shaker at home (who needs the temptation?).
Weight reduction has also been correlated with better blood pressure control. In fact, if you are overweight, losing about 5kg may help to lower your blood pressure, and prevent you from developing hypertension (if you are female, aim for a waist circumference under 80cm).
However, it is important to be realistic here; it can be difficult to lose the weight – and keep it off. Sometimes it may help to set yourself small, achievable goals (such as reducing your consumption of cakes and biscuits, rather than cutting them out altogether).
We’ve all heard that a glass of red wine may be cardio-protective, but this is by no means a reason to indulge carte blanche! Did you know that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may in fact increase your blood pressure, and binging may increase your risk of developing hypertension?
To maintain good blood pressure control, it is advisable for women to drink no more than one standard alcoholic beverage a day, with at least two alcohol-free days a week.
It is believed that stress may lead to repeat bouts of elevated blood pressure, which can eventually lead to hypertension. However, let’s face it – we all lead busy lives, and who doesn’t experience some level of stress in their day-to-day life?
To minimise the impact of stress on your health, you may benefit from investing in some chill-out time each day. This could take the form of a 30-minute walk, a daily meditation session or even a luxurious bubble bath in the evening. Whatever your method of relaxing, it is important to do some every single day.