Physical labor, high blood pressure a bad mix for women

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By Evonne Woloshyn, Advocate Health Care News Service

Women who do physical labor and have hypertension may be at higher risk for a heart attack, according to a recent study. Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark found that physically demanding work, such as nursing, could triple the odds of having a myocardial infarction.

The researchers reviewed data on more than 12,000 female nurses. Using a questionnaire, participants were encouraged to rate their exertion levels as low, moderate or high. About 47 percent of those surveyed reported high levels of activity, such as lifting, carrying, standing and walking. Twelve percent reported having hypertension. During fifteen years of follow-up, 580 nurses developed ischemic heart disease, the hardening of the arteries also known as coronary artery disease.

“I think this study is interesting, but not great science,” says Dr. Alan Brown, director of the division of cardiology at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “It has several issues that call the study into question, because it is a retrospective analysis and not controlled for other cardiovascular risk factors.”

Nurses with hypertension who performed hard labor were associated with 60 extra cases of heart disease per 10,000 people per year. Those with normal blood pressure and high physical activity had a small increased risk of heart disease, about five additional cases per 10,000 per year. That increase is not considered statistically significant.

“Over time, a high heart rate many hours a day may cause plaques to form in the arteries,” said lead study author Karen Allesoe of the University of Southern Denmark. “Hypertension has also been tied to such plaques.”

“The study confirms what we already know, that people with hypertension should aggressively control their blood pressure and other cardiac risk factors,” says Dr. Brown. “At the end of the day, this study suggests that you should also avoid heavy labor until you have gotten it under control.”

It’s important to note that the study only analyzed female nurses and also depended upon women self-reporting, which could lead to incorrect information.

The American Heart Association (AHA) provides these simple lifestyle changes to help manage blood pressure:

  • Eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain and high-fiber foods, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Limit salt, sugar and trans and saturated fats.
  • Make exercisea part of your weekly routine. Shoot for 40-minute sessions of vigorous physical activity three to four times per week. Stretching and flexibility exercises and muscle strengthening are also important. Find an activity you enjoy to make it fun!
  • Monitor your weight. Shedding some pounds may be key to lowering your blood pressure. Check out the AHA’s High Blood Pressure Risk Calculatorto see how losing weight can help lower your blood pressure.
  • Manage your stress levels. Meditation and yoga are simple methods to calm your mind. Try to set aside 15 to 20 minutes a day to sit quietly, breathe deeply and relax.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol. Alcohol raises blood pressure, so have no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.
  • If you smoke, try to quit with the help of your health care provider.

Experts advise speaking to your physician regarding your blood pressure and how to manage it appropriately.

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