Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure—Age Matters But So Does Lifestyle

Risk is based on gender, activity, diet, and more

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

High blood pressure can lead to congestive heart failure, heart attack, and stroke. Professor Anding examines both the preventable and genetic risk factors.

Woman checking her blood pressure
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, anyone over the age of 55 has an increased lifetime risk of developing high blood pressure. Photo By Bacho / Shutterstock

Ethnicity and High Blood Pressure

Hypertension or high blood pressure is defined as when your blood pressure is consistently higher than 140 over 90. The risk factors for high blood pressure are numerous. 

Ethnicity is one—depending on the estimates that you read, up to 40% of African Americans have hypertension. African Americans often develop hypertension earlier, and it’s a more severe and often more difficult form to treat. 

Research has not yet provided a clear reason why African Americans are more vulnerable. If you are African American, Professor Anding recommends that you not only check your blood pressure but your children’s blood pressure—regardless of their weight and other risk factors.

Age and Activity as a Risk Factor

Age is another risk factor. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, anyone over the age of 55 has an increased lifetime risk—even if you’ve had normal blood pressure before then. 

Now, you may have had an experience when you’re anxious, and your test indicates that you have high blood pressure. However, isolated blood pressure is not what we’re looking at. We’re looking at a pattern over time.

Physical inactivity can increase the risk of high blood pressure. How much exercise do you need? 

A major study looking at 54 individual studies on the dosing of aerobic exercise demonstrated that at all levels and all intensities, regular aerobic exercise can lower the systolic number—the force of the blood when the heart beats—by 3.8 millimeters of mercury—and the diastolic pressure—the force in between heart beats—by 2.6. If, for example, the blood pressure reading was 140 over 90, the diastolic pressure is the bottom number (90) and the systolic pressure is the top number (140).

Keep in mind, however, that if the exercise stops, so will the beneficial effects. We’ve all heard the adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

“I’m going to suggest we have a new one: ‘A walk a day keeps the pressure away,'” Professor Anding said.

Diet and Blood Pressure

Diet and nutrition are also risk factors. Obese people have a five times greater risk of developing high blood pressure. 

According to one study, obese women are more likely to have an increase in systolic pressure than men. Professor Anding encourages you to use your tape measure to measure your waist circumference, around the level of your belly button. 

If you are a male and your waist circumference is greater than 40 inches, you’re going to have an increased risk of high blood pressure. For women, if your waist circumference is greater than 35 inches, you have an increased risk. 

Thus, not only does weight make a difference but also where your weight is clustered. Sometimes you’ll see this as the difference between an apple-body shape—abdominal obesity—and a pear-body shape, where you have your weight in your hips and thighs. Women tend to have a pear shape, which makes them more prone to high blood pressure.

Additionally, people who consume diets high in sodium and low in potassium are more likely to develop hypertension. This reveals a trend where two minerals act in opposition to one another. 

Individuals with vitamin D deficiency are also found to have a higher than average systolic and diastolic blood pressure. By extension, then, having adequate amounts of vitamin D may reduce your risk of having high blood pressure.

Uncommon Risk Factors

As with many chronic diseases, individuals with a family history of high blood pressure are at risk as well. Sleep apnea, however, is a common and often overlooked cause of high blood pressure. 

Sleep apnea occurs when you can’t get adequate oxygen delivery and are waking up multiple times during the night. Now, you might not actually be aroused from sleep, but you can ask your partner whether or not you snore. If you snore, you’re much more likely to have sleep apnea. 

Cushing’s syndrome—an unusual cause of high blood pressure—occurs when you have an over secretion of the hormone cortisol. Other atypical causes include certain popular drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen.

Other individuals at risk for developing hypertension are individuals who are pregnant, as well as individuals with polycystic kidney disease, kidney tumors, and insulin resistance. Insulin is an anabolic hormone that helps us to retain or hang onto additional sodium. 

Finally, the stress of everyday life can cause elevations in your blood pressure. Thus, a holistic method for reducing high blood pressure might be to not only walk and monitor your diet, but to integrate strategies to reduce stress in your life.

Tomorrow’s article will examine the DASH diet as a method of reducing high blood pressure.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.