Hypertension, or high blood pressure, has traditionally been thought of as an older person’s problem. It’s true that most people who develop hypertension are over 35, with women more likely to succumb after menopause than before menopause. Yet, early high blood pressure is a very real risk for women who fall into certain categories, such as those who are pregnant, overweight or African-American; those who take certain kinds of hormones; and those with a family history of hypertension.
High blood pressure is defined as blood pressure of 140/90 mm Hg or higher. Although it has no symptoms, left untreated it can cause cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney damage and blindness. Experts estimate that 72 million Americans have high blood pressure—almost half of them women—and very few are being treated properly.
Pregnancy is a particularly fertile time for the onset of hypertension in some women, especially in the last trimester. In its severest form, pregnancy-induced hypertension can lead to preeclampsia, a condition in which the mother may suffer seizures. Often, the only way to prevent harm to the mother and fetus in this situation is immediate delivery. For women who suffer from hypertension before conceiving, the risk of developing preeclampsia during pregnancy is 11 times greater than that of women with normal blood pressure.
Are you taking any hormonal medications? If so, be especially vigilant if you’re overweight, have suffered hypertension during a previous pregnancy or smoke cigarettes. All these factors, combined with some hormones, have been found to increase blood pressure in some women.
Race plays a part in your risk level, too. Researchers are unsure why, but young African-American women are more susceptible to hypertension than are other young women. Not only that, African-Americans who develop hypertension often get it earlier and more severely than others.
But it’s not just physical statistics that determine whether you’re a candidate for high blood pressure. Your mental state, too, has a lot to do with whether you’ll develop the disease at an early age. Young people who feel chronically pressed for time and impatient with the “slowpokes” around them may be heading down the road toward hypertension. Psychological distress, particularly anger, anxiety and depression, may also increase your chances.
The good news is that many risk factors for hypertension are controllable. To lower your blood pressure, try these tips before resorting to medication:
- Maintain your ideal weight.
- Cut down on salt intake.
- Avoid needless stress.
And it’s OK to drink two to three alcoholic beverages a week: Younger women who drink lightly have lower blood pressure than those who abstain completely or who drink heavily. Also, think twice before popping pain relievers. At least one study has linked nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen to hypertension.