Blood pressure is the amount of force that blood exerts on the blood vessels as it moves through the body. When this pressure is abnormally high, it is called hypertension , and it places excess stress on the blood vessels and the heart. Over time, this extra stress can lead to blood vessel damage as well as heart and kidney failure . The damaged blood vessels in turn can cause complications like stroke or vision loss. For most people, the exact cause of high blood pressure is not known, but there are several habits that are known to be linked to high blood pressure. Being overweight or inactive, smoking, and eating a diet high in sodium or low in potassium and vitamin D are known to increase your risk for high blood pressure. Too much alcohol and stress can also increase your blood pressure. Preventing or managing hypertension is important to significantly decrease the risk of serious illnesses like heart disease or stroke and premature death.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School wanted to assess the effect of certain habits on the risk of hypertension in women. Data from a large study called the Nurses’ Health Study was reviewed by this team of researchers. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association , found six specific lifestyle habits that were associated with lower rates of high blood pressure.

About the Study

The Nurses’ Health Study is a large, ongoing cohort study . The study has collected information about the habits and health outcomes of 83,882 women ages 27-44 over 14 years. By the end of the 14-year period, 14% of the women reported that they had hypertension. The researchers compared the lifestyle habits of the women who developed high blood pressure to the habits of women who did not. Six lifestyle habits were significantly different between the two groups. Women who did not have high blood pressure were more likely to:

  • Have a body mass index ( BMI ) under 25 (normal BMI 18-24)
  • Exercise vigorously for an average of 30 minutes every day
  • Have a low-salt diet, similar to that of the DASH diet
  • Have a modest alcohol intake (one drink or less per day)
  • Use nonnarcotic analgesics (eg, acetaminophen ) less than once per week
  • Take at least 400 mcg (micrograms) of folic acid supplementation everyday

Women who had all of the lifestyle habits above were 78% less likely to develop high blood pressure over the 14-year period. BMI was found to be the most powerful predictor of future hypertension.

How Does This Affect You?

A cohort study is designed to simply observe the participants as they live. When the data is analyzed, other factors that can influence blood pressure may need to be accounted for. Because the study is only observed, not controlled, some factors may not be accounted for. As a result, this type of study can never firmly prove a cause-and-effect relationship. However, because this was a large study that was done over a long period of time, the connection between these lifestyle habits and high blood pressure is more likely to be true. Other studies have also supported some of these findings.

Periodic appointments with your doctor are important to identify and treat hypertension, but you can take steps in between to decrease your risks. A balanced diet and regular physical activity are not only important to preventing hypertension but are also necessary steps in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Make changes to your diet so that it follows the recommendations of the DASH diet. Start by replacing some less healthy foods with fruits and vegetables , switch whole dairy products to lowfat or nonfat products, or choose leaner meats. Begin to add more activity to your days by scheduling brief periods in your day for activity, even 10-15 minute walks will help at first. Prevention is best, but if you have hypertension, proper management is important to reduce damage to your blood vessels and heart. The sooner you begin a healthy lifestyle, the better chance you have for a long healthful life.