Experts recently debunked the myth that vascular disease strikes most men decades before women. New research shows it’s actually female blood vessels that age quicker and that women actually showed signs of blood pressure elevation much earlier in life than men.
The findings may explain why men and women develop different cardiovascular diseases at different points in their lives. They also indicate that cardiac and vascular diseases may manifest differently in women versus men. The clear physiological differences between cardiovascular progression and outcomes in males versus females suggest that assessment and therapy tools could have better outcomes if gender-specific.
Differences in Blood Vessels
Research recently published in JAMA Cardiology was led by Dr. Susan Cheng, MD, MPH, MMSc. Cheng is the director of public health research at California’s Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute. The team compared over 40-years’ worth of female and male data from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute BioLINCC repository and other community-based blood pressure data. They analyzed previously measured blood pressure results. The almost 33,000 participants in the study ranged in age from five to 98, and the study compared female-to-female and male-to-male data.
Blood pressure readings are a significant and reliable indicator for cardiovascular risk and are a widely accessible, noninvasive tool for healthcare providers to gain insight on a patient’s overall vascular health.
High blood pressure affects half the adult U.S. population. Left untreated, hypertension can lead to a number of medical issues, including stroke, heart disease, and kidney disease. Within the blood vessels, blood pressure elevations can lead to hardening, tears and otherwise distortions of how blood is delivered to the body’s vital organs.
Previous studies have shown that arterial stiffening measurements progress faster in women than in men after a woman goes through menopause. Historically, though, women and men suffering from cardiovascular disease have generally been treated similarly.
Women’s Blood Pressure Elevations Occur Earlier
This study suggests that arterial changes actually begin much sooner than previously thought. The pattern differences on when blood pressure rises appear to stay consistent for women, young and old alike.
The findings revealed that, from 30s onward, women’s blood pressure elevations occurred earlier than their male counterparts. According to Cheng, this means that the health and stress response of arteries is likely much different between sexes. Disease processes that are reliant upon the health of the arteries are also potentially subject to a number of implications.
Cheng says that the analysis revealed far more than just women catching up to men in terms of blood pressure measurements. Women participants showed significantly higher rates of blood pressure elevation acceleration from early in life. To Cheng, this indicates that women and men need to be addressed differently in terms of cardiovascular health and disease.
Why Do Female Blood Vessels Age Quicker?
Cheng points out that there’s a lot left to learn about the female cardiovascular system and why there’s this sex-based difference in blood pressure trajectories. From lack of sleep and stress to hormonal changes, a number of things have been identified as risk factors for both males and females. The difference in sex-specific hormones may be one of the distinguishing factors. There’s also the anatomical difference in size, shape and arterial stiffness between females and males to consider.
The team hopes their research can serve as a springboard to further studies of the intrinsic biological and physiological differences between the male and female cardiovascular systems. They also hope it raises awareness about the impact such differences have on how men and women respond to high blood pressure measurements and treatments.
What Can Women Do to Slow Arterial Aging?
The above research showcases just how important it is for women to take early, long-term steps to bolster their cardiovascular health and keep their blood vessels in great shape. Here are a few preventative measures:
• Avoid Tobacco: If you smoke, join a cessation program. Smoking damages the arterial walls, but research shows that quitting, even after years of smoking, can lower your risk of heart-related diseases.
• Get Active: The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic (heart-pumping) exercise per week.
• Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet: Certain foods support a healthy cardiovascular system, and certain foods can increase your risk of heart disease and hypertension. Avoid unhealthy fats, added salts, and added sugars. Eat a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Be mindful that portion size is just as important as choosing nutrient-rich foods and that your diet should be a daily lifestyle choice.
• Limit Alcohol: Research shows that one alcoholic drink per day may help prevent heart disease due to its ability to raise HDL (good cholesterol) levels and thin the blood. Any more, though, can deteriorate the heart muscle and raise blood pressure.
• Manage Stress: Whether it’s green space exposure, meditation, hobbies or professional therapy, it’s vital to have ways to manage life’s stressors.
• Schedule Routine Health Checkups: Keep a close eye on other disease processes and conditions proven to influence heart health, including menopause, diabetes, and hyperlipidemia.
All in all, the above study questions the myth that women enjoy longer cardiovascular health than men and stave off elevated blood pressure levels. It shows female blood vessels might very well age faster, not slower. While the answer to why this occurs hasn’t yet been fully answered, you can take certain steps to improve your heart health and lessen your risk of vascular incidents.