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August 2008 Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource Highlights Avoiding Blood Pressure Increase at Menopause, Healthful Benefits of Dark Chocolate and Scheduling a Colorectal Exam

ROCHESTER, Minn., Aug. 6 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Here are highlights from the August issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource. You may cite this publication as often as you wish. Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource attribution is required. Reprinting is allowed for a fee. Include the following subscription information as your editorial policies permit: Visit or call toll-free for subscription information, 800-876-8633, extension 9751.

Ways to Avoid Blood Pressure Increase at Menopause

Five steps to lower blood pressure

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Before menopause, women have a blood pressure advantage.

Women's blood pressure starts out lower than men's, but the advantage doesn't last. The August issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource offers insights on blood pressure changes in women and steps to avoid high blood pressure.

Women's systolic pressure -- the top number in the blood pressure reading and the one that's more closely associated with heart disease risk and stroke in people over age 50 -- increases by about 5 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) with menopause. A study done between 2001 and 2003 among people over age 60 showed that women had a higher systolic blood pressure than did men in every state in America. According to the report, women tended to think they didn't have high blood pressure when, in fact, they did.

For healthy adults, blood pressure less than 120/80 mm Hg is desirable. Untreated high blood pressure can cause the heart to work too hard. As a result, the walls of arteries can harden and impede blood flow. Restricted blood flow can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney failure and dementia.

When blood pressure rises above normal, it's essential to work with a doctor on a treatment plan to control the condition. The plan might include medications as well as these basic steps. Even one can make a significant difference in blood pressure.

1. Get regular physical exercise. Exercise helps lower blood pressure because it makes the heart stronger. With greater strength, the heart can pump more blood with less effort. Being physically active for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week can lower blood pressure by 4 to 9 mm Hg.

2. Follow a healthy eating plan. A healthy diet consists mostly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. Limit consumption of red meat, processed foods and sweets. Several studies have shown that those who follow the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan, a healthy diet similar to what's described here, may reduce blood pressure by up to 14 mm Hg.

3. Reduce dietary sodium. Salt (sodium) increases blood pressure in most people with high blood pressure and in about 25 percent of people with normal blood pressure. The recommended daily sodium intake is 1,500 to 2,400 milligrams; lower is even better.

4. Limit alcohol intake. In small amounts, alcohol can help prevent heart attacks and coronary artery disease. But that protective effect is lost when women regularly drink more than one drink a day. Above that amount, alcohol can raise blood pressure by several points and can interfere with blood pressure medications.

5. Achieve a healthy weight. Being thin isn't essential. But for those who are overweight, losing as little as 5 percent to 10 percent of body weight can lower blood pressure by several points. With less body mass to nourish, the heart doesn't have to pump as hard and the pressure on the arteries decreases.

Small, Sweet and Healthful: A Square of Dark Chocolate a Day Offers Benefits

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Chocolate as health food? Not exactly, but eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day offers some health benefits.

The benefits are thought to come from flavonoids in dark chocolate, according to the August issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource. Flavonoids are a naturally occurring antioxidant that also are found in teas, red wine and some fruits and vegetables.

The flavonoids in dark chocolate have been associated with a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system. One recent study showed that 6 grams of dark chocolate a day, about one square, lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 2 points each.

Dark chocolate also may lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels by about 5 points. While not a huge affect, it's sending that "bad" cholesterol in the right direction. Also, flavonoids have a beneficial effect on how the lining of the blood vessels function.

"We think a lot of bad things that happen to the cardiovascular system are because the lining of the vessels cracks and becomes inflamed, setting the stage for plaques to form and rupture," says Robert Sheeler, M.D., a family physician at Mayo Clinic.

To gain the health benefits, there's no need to eat a whole chocolate bar. After all, chocolate still contains calories and fat. Dr. Sheeler says just one square a day, about 30 calories worth, will provide the health benefits.

Generally, to gain health benefits, Dr. Sheeler recommends chocolate that contains at least 60 percent cocoa. Milk chocolate typically has 15 percent to 25 percent cocoa. Dark chocolate tends to have 50 percent to 80-plus percent cocoa. And no need to buy the priciest brands. Some high-quality dark chocolate bars are available for $2 to $4 each.

Most Important Choice -- Schedule a Colorectal Exam

More options are available for colon cancer screenings

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- For many women, scheduling a screening for a colorectal cancer isn't on the radar. Some mistakenly believe it's a man's disease.

That misperception could be deadly. Colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths among women, after lung cancer and breast cancer. And, a majority of Americans who could benefit from colorectal screening aren't getting tested regularly. Many have never been screened.

Colon cancer occurs in the large intestine, the lower part of the digestive system. Rectal cancer involves the last six inches of the colon. Cancer that begins in either organ may be called colorectal or colon cancer. For people age 50 and older, or those at high risk, regular screening can help prevent colon cancer or detect it early, when it can be most treatable.

The August issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource covers pros and cons of the two categories of screening tests:

-- Those that can find both polyps and cancer, such as colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy and double-contrast barium enema. Most cases of colon cancer begin as small, noncancerous clumps of cells called polyps.

-- Those that mainly find cancer, such as the fecal occult blood test and fecal immunochemical test.

Two new colon cancer screenings are: CT colonoscopy (also called virtual colonoscopy) and DNA-based stool testing, a simple noninvasive exam done at home.

Colonoscopy remains a preferred screening method. The doctor uses a long, flexible lighted tube with a small video camera on the end to view the entire colon and rectum. Special tools can be passed through the tube to remove polyps and take tissue samples.

The best screening choice depends on personal health history and personal preference. Any form of regular screening improves the odds of avoiding colorectal cancer or catching it in the earliest, most treatable stages.

Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource is published monthly to help women enjoy healthier, more productive lives. Revenue from subscriptions is used to support medical research at Mayo Clinic. To subscribe, please call 800-876-8633, extension 9751, or visit

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