For many women approaching middle age, their biggest health concern is wrinkles and weight gain. But according to the latest research, what they really should worry about is their heart health.
Researchers from Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai are pointing to first-of-its-kind research that suggests women’s blood vessels age far more quickly than men’s. As a result, they’re at greater risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
This flies in the face of the stereotype that “men die young of heart attacks while women all live into their eighties.” It’s not so, and believing this may cost you your life. Here’s the latest…
The American Heart Association estimates 103 million adults in the United States have high blood pressure. That’s about half of the adult population!1
These numbers signal a serious danger, because untreated high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, and irreparable damage to the kidneys.
Even more concerning is new research that shows women are at risk for suffering from high blood pressure when they’re still surprisingly young. A team from Cedars-Sinai performed a large-scale analysis spanning 43 years of research and found women’s blood pressure can spike as early as age 30.
The team reached this alarming conclusion after examining 145,000 blood pressure measurements from 32,000 participants, both men and women, aged 5 to 98-years-old.
“Our data showed that rates of accelerating blood pressure elevation were significantly higher in women than men, starting earlier in life,” said Dr. Susan Cheng, the Erika J. Glazer Chair in Women’s Cardiovascular Health.
Results Turn the Tables on Earlier Beliefs
Before this groundbreaking study, doctors believed that arterial stiffening tends to accelerate faster in women after menopause.
“These findings indicate that the faster acceleration in arterial changes really begins much earlier in life,” Dr. Cheng explained. “And that sex differences in the pattern actually persist from the younger all the way through to the older decades of aging,”
This means the health of a woman’s arteries and her body’s response over time to certain factors that put stress on the arteries is probably different from that of men.
Dr. Cheng discussed the importance of these findings. In her view, “This means that if we define the hypertension threshold the exact same way, a 30-year old woman with high blood pressure is probably at higher risk for cardiovascular disease than a man with high blood pressure at the same age.”
Why do Younger Women Experience High Blood Pressure?
Some experts believe there are reasons why women experience an early bump in blood pressure numbers.
Dr. Nicole Weinberg, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, weighs in on the various factors, saying, “There’s a lot of different things that can affect blood pressure. There’s life stresses. There’s lack of sleep. There’s hormone changes… there’s so many things that affect our blood pressure, and when you think about a young woman’s life, all these things are quite variable… so perhaps these are some of the things that are showing spikes in blood pressure.”2
What this Means to a Woman’s Health
Researchers hope that the findings, published in the journal JAMA Cardiology, will help to explain why women tend to develop different types of cardiovascular disease and with different timing than men.3
If nothing more, the research will help dispel the medical myth that women are at less risk for heart disease than men. The fact is, each year more women die of heart disease than men. What’s more, there are reports that doctors often miss heart disease and related risk factors in women — such as high blood pressure.4
If you’re a woman of any age, I encourage you to regularly monitor your blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors with your doctor. Remember, your risk for having a heart attack, heart failure, or a stroke typically begins with high blood pressure.5
If you’re under the age of 40, you may have to go so far as to ask your doctor to test for heart disease risk factors at an earlier age than most doctors might think, if they’re following the profession’s “standard of care.”
The study of physiological differences between men and women’s cardiovascular health is a new, growing area of scientific research. I’ll keep you updated on any other important developments as new research is published. I have no doubt this is the first of many studies to come.
- JAMA Cardiol. 2020;5(3):19-26. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2019.5306