5 facts women need to know about high blood pressure

by Kaiser Permanente |
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What do headaches, fluid retention, and tightness around your chest have in common? They can all be symptoms of high blood pressure in women.1

High blood pressure often has no symptoms. But some women experience warning signs that they may mistakenly blame on stress or hormonal changes. 

More than 44% of women have high blood pressure — and fewer than 1 in 4 women have it under control.2 High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, the number one killer of women.3 And it’s a leading cause of kidney failure.4

It’s important to know your blood pressure numbers and risk factors so you can take steps to stay healthy.

What is blood pressure? 

Blood pressure measures how hard blood pushes against the walls of your arteries. Your blood pressure goes up and down throughout the day. If it stays up over weeks or months, your heart has to work harder to pump blood. This is high blood pressure, or hypertension. High blood pressure that isn’t treated can damage your blood vessel walls and arteries. It can cause serious health problems, including strokeheart attackkidney disease and kidney failure, vision problems, and dementia.

What your numbers mean

Two numbers tell you your blood pressure. The first (top) number is the systolic pressure. It shows how hard the blood pushes when your heart pumps. The second (bottom) number is the diastolic pressure. It shows how hard the blood pushes on artery walls when your heart relaxes between beats. 

  • Normal blood pressure — Blood pressure is below 120/80.
  • Elevated blood pressure — The top number ranges from 120 to 129, and the bottom number is below 80.
  • Elevated at-risk blood pressure — The top number ranges from 130 to 139 or the bottom number ranges from 80 to 89. Your doctor may treat you for high blood pressure if you have other high-risk factors, like heart or kidney disease.
  • High blood pressure — The top number is 140 or higher or the bottom number is 90 or higher.

When to get checked

People 40 and older should get their blood pressure checked once a year, says Angeline Ong-Su, MD, Family Medicine, Kaiser Permanente Panorama City Medical Center. High-risk adults, including those who are overweight or obese, should also get checked every year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says. Other adults 18 to 39 can get theirs checked every 3 to 5 years, Dr. Ong-Su says.

5 facts about high blood pressure in women

Anyone can develop high blood pressure

Experts don’t know why some people get high blood pressure. Anyone can get it, at almost any age. 

Certain risk factors make some women more likely to develop high blood pressure:

  • Race. Black women have the highest rates of high blood pressure, and 5 times the risk of death.5
  • Genetics. If a family member has high blood pressure, you’re at higher risk. Talk to your relatives about their blood pressure and heart health.
  • Age. Women’s risk begins to increase after menopause, usually around age 50.
  • Pregnancy. Having high blood pressure from pregnancy makes you more likely to develop it when you’re older.
  • Certain conditions. Health issues like polycystic ovary syndrome, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis increase your risk of high blood pressure.6,7
  • Some birth control pills. Oral contraceptives may affect your blood vessels and blood pressure. If you take them, be sure to get your blood pressure checked every year.

Other factors can also increase your risk. "Chronic conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes, or sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure,” says Dr. Ong-Su. "And certain lifestyle factors, such as lack of exercise, tobacco use, eating too much salt, and drinking too much alcohol can also increase your risk of high blood pressure."

Symptoms may be hard to identify

High blood pressure is called a "silent killer" because many people may not have symptoms. If you do have symptoms, it might be that your blood pressure has been high for a long time. That’s why it’s important to know your risk factors and get your blood pressure checked accordingly.

High blood pressure may cause symptoms like:8

  • Severe headaches
  • Blurry vision
  • Chest pain, including feeling like your bra is painfully tight
  • Irregular heart rhythm or heart palpitations 
  • Dizziness 
  • Fluid retention
  • Numbness or weakness on one side of your body

If you believe you’re experiencing symptoms of severe high blood pressure, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. 

If you’re prescribed high blood pressure medications, be sure to take them as directed. People without symptoms may forget to take their medications because they can’t feel them working, says Dr. Ong-Su.

High blood pressure from pregnancy increases your risk later in life 

Some women develop high blood pressure during pregnancy. About 1 in 25 pregnant people will experience preeclampsia, a form of high blood pressure during pregnancy.9

High blood pressure from pregnancy usually goes away within a few months. But it puts some women at a higher risk of developing chronic high blood pressure when they’re older. If you had high blood pressure during a pregnancy, let your current doctor know so you can be monitored carefully. 

Your risk is higher after reaching menopause

Menopause occurs when you’ve gone without a period for 12 months in a row, usually around age 50. Heart disease risk factors increase around this time — including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and poor sleep. And women who reach menopause early (before 45) have a greater chance of having heart disease.10

It’s important to focus on your heart health during this transition to help prevent problems later. Get your blood pressure checked at your yearly doctor visit — and more often if you experience any sudden health changes.  

Lifestyle changes can lower your risk  

The good news? A healthy lifestyle can help you avoid or manage high blood pressure. "The best things you can do to prevent heart disease are healthy eating, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight," says Dr. Ong-Su.

From better nutrition to less stress, these habits can keep your heart and blood vessels healthy.

  • Make healthy food choices. Eat mainly plant-based, whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, legumes, healthy grains, and nuts. Choose foods low in sodium and high in potassium — like baked potatoes, spinach, and avocados, Dr. Ong-Su says. Sodium (including salt) increases your blood volume, putting more pressure on your blood vessels. That makes your heart work harder. Potassium helps relax blood vessels and decrease blood pressure. 
  • Limit alcohol to 1 drink a day or less. 
  • Get at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week. That could be 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week.
  • Be mindful of your weight and try to lose extra weight if you need to. 
  • Aim to sleep at least 7 hours a night. 
  • Find ways to manage stress. Take time for self-care and activities you enjoy. 
  • Choose a program to help you quit smoking
  • Avoid certain over-the-counter medications if you’re being treated for high blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about which medications are safe for you. 

Healthier living for a healthier heart

High blood pressure can be a serious condition if left untreated. At Kaiser Permanente, our members get personalized care to prevent and manage high blood pressure. Learn more about heart health and our cardiac care

1"High Blood Pressure and Women," National Institutes of Health, May 2021.

2"Women and Heart Disease," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed January 18, 2024.

3See note 2.

4"Chronic Kidney Disease Basics," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed February 5, 2024.

5Rahul Aggarwal et al., "Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Hypertension Prevalence, Awareness, Treatment, and Control in the United States, 2013 to 2018," Hypertension, August 9, 2021.

6Sherry Zhang, MD, et al., "Hypertension Risk in Adolescent Females With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome," Circulation, November 6, 2023. 

7Victoria L. Wolf and Michael J. Ryan, "Autoimmune Disease-Associated Hypertension," Current Hypertension Reports, February 2, 2019.

8Angela H.E.M. Maas, MD, "Hypertension in Women: No ‘Silent’ Lady-Killer," E-Journal of Cardiology Practice, September 11, 2019. Angela H.E.M. Maas, MD, et al., "Cardiovascular Health After Menopause Transition, Pregnancy Disorders, and Other Gynaecologic Conditions: A Consensus Document From European Cardiologists, Gynaecologists, and Endocrinologists," European Heart Journal, January 25, 2021. 

9"High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed January 18, 2024. 

10"Menopause and Cardiovascular Risk" and "Menopause and Heart Health," American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women, accessed January 19, 2024.