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Many Women Struggle With Uncontrolled Blood Pressure

But medications and lifestyle changes can head off threats like heart attack and stroke

WEDNESDAY, July 16 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly one in three Americans suffers from high blood pressure -- more than 73 million adults.

But half of them -- women -- face unique challenges in controlling their blood pressure.

For instance, women with high blood pressure are more likely to be obese and have high cholesterol levels. They're also less likely than men to meet target goals for their blood pressure. And they're also less likely than men to receive medications such as aspirin, blood pressure-lowering drugs or cholesterol-lowering drugs, compared to men, recent research found.

These findings add greater urgency to the American Heart Association's ongoing "Go Red for Women" campaign, which seeks to change the perception that high blood pressure and heart disease are "male" health threats.

Most people don't know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women -- as well as men. An estimated 480,000 women die of cardiovascular disease every year, more than the total number of cardiovascular disease-related deaths in men, or the next four causes of death combined, according to the heart association.

Unchecked high blood pressure -- also known as hypertension -- can produce terrible systemic damage and disease. It can lead to a heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney damage, blindness and a host of other medical problems.

Despite this, a large segment of women aren't adequately addressing their hypertension.

"Only about 60 percent of women with high blood pressure are having it controlled," said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of New York University Medical Center's Women's Heart Program, and a spokeswoman for the "Go Red for Women" campaign. "When you bring your blood pressure down, you cut your stroke risk in half and risk of heart attack by 25 percent."

Part of the problem is that women tend to suffer from an increased systolic rate, said Dr. Daniel Jones, president of the American Heart Association.

Blood pressure is the force of the blood against artery walls when the heart beats and then rests. Measurement renders two numbers. Systolic pressure, the top number, is recorded when your heart beats and forces blood out to the body. Diastolic pressure is the bottom number, and is the minimum pressure that occurs when the heart relaxes between beats. The ideal blood pressure is below 120/80 mmHg, according to the heart association.

But, Jones added, "The systolic rate is more resistant to treatment through medication."

Goldberg believes that some women might be stopping their blood pressure medication without talking with their doctor, after suffering from side effects that can include insomnia, lethargy and depression.

"If the medication is a problem, we have many different medications that help," said Goldberg, author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg's Complete Guide to Women's Health.

Further complicating treatment is the perception of high blood pressure as a "man's disease," which might affect the intensity of care they receive, Goldberg said.

"Sometimes, the woman's needs aren't being met at the doctor's office," she said. "They need to ask the simple question, 'What is my blood pressure?' And if it seems a little elevated, they need to talk to a doctor about what to do to fix it."

Women also shouldn't ignore the lifestyle changes they can pursue that will lower their blood pressure, or help prevent it from rising in the first place, Jones said.

"They're not as easy to do as some things, but they are very powerful," he said.

Diet can have a big impact on high blood pressure. A recent study found that women 45 years old and older who ate low-fat diary foods were at lower risk of developing high blood pressure.

"Those [low-fat diary products] are great, because they have calcium, which is good for our bones, so there's more than one benefit," Goldberg said.

Reducing fat and salt intake is also helpful.

"When you're going to the market and buying prepared foods, purchase those that are grilled, not fried," Goldberg said. "You also should realize many condiments are very high in salt."

Quitting smoking and reducing the amount of alcohol you drink is also important for reducing your overall risk for heart attack and stroke.

On the horizon, researchers are developing a vaccine that could prove successful in moderating blood pressure. It works by inhibiting angiotensin II, a molecule that constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure.

"The potential attractiveness of a vaccine is it might be a more convenient way to manage high blood pressure in some people," Jones said.

Researchers at the 2007 American Heart Association annual meeting discussed some early encouraging results, although Jones cautioned that the vaccine is still years away from use in patients. "People should not be anticipating this is something that would be clinically available anytime in the near future," he said. "It's not anywhere close to being tested by the FDA for use."

Until then, following a healthy lifestyle and sticking with a good medication are a woman's -- and man's -- best bet for beating back high blood pressure.

"We know that a diet that is low in sodium and high in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products is very useful in both preventing and treating high blood pressure," Jones said. "I always like to remind people of the importance of simple things in lifestyle that can make a difference."

More information

To learn more about the Go Red for Women campaign, visit the American Heart Association.

SOURCES: Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director, New York University Medical Center's Women's Heart Program, New York City; Daniel Jones, M.D., president, American Heart Association; American Heart Association

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