July 21, 2009 -- High blood pressure contributes to more excess deaths in women than any other preventable factor. But following a healthy lifestyle could lower women's risk of high blood pressure by as much as 80%.
In a new study, women achieved that reduction in risk by taking these healthy lifestyle steps: maintaining a normal weight; performing daily exercise; eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and low in sodium; and taking a folic acid supplement.
Researchers say the current findings are a compelling reminder that even a family history of high blood pressure doesn't necessarily mean that hypertension has to be in your future.
"Adherence to a combination of low-risk lifestyle factors could have the potential to prevent the majority of new-onset hypertension in young women irrespective of family history of hypertension and irrespective of oral contraceptive use," write researcher John Forman, MD, MSc, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
"[This] conclusion is particularly poignant given that some women may mistakenly believe that their parental history signifies that their own development of hypertension may be unavoidable; rather, these women may conceivably at least delay onset of hypertension by reducing their risk factors."
Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Blood Pressure
The study followed more than 80,000 women, 27 to 44 years old, who participated in the second Nurses Health Study from 1991 to 2005. All of the women had normal blood pressure levels (defined as systolic blood pressure of 120/80 or less) and were free of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer at the start of the study.
During the 14-year follow up, 12,319 cases of high blood pressure in the women were reported.
Researchers found the following six healthy lifestyle factors were associated with a lower risk of developing high blood pressure:
1. Healthy weight: body mass index (BMI) of less than 25.
2. Daily exercise: average of 30 minutes of vigorous exercise per day.
3. Heart-healthy diet: following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet based on high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains, and low intake of sodium, sweetened beverages, and red and processed meats.
4. Moderate alcohol use.
5. Use nonnarcotic pain relievers less than once per week.
6. Taking a folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms.
Overall, the study showed women with all six of these healthy lifestyle factors (0.3% of the women in the study), had an 80% lower risk of developing high blood pressure, regardless of family history of hypertension.
Among the healthy lifestyle factors, BMI was the most powerful predictor of high blood pressure risk. Researchers estimate that 40% of new hypertension cases could be prevented if all women had a BMI under 25.
Importantly, obese women (those with a BMI at or above 30) experienced little reduction in hypertension risk, even if they adhered to all other healthful lifestyle measures. Because obesity affects over one-third of the U.S. population, this finding has significant practical implications.