Mammograms and Pap smears to detect cancer have become a part of many women's preventive-health regimens, and for good reason. But cardiovascular disease, which is responsible for one in four deaths worldwide, still ranks as the No. 1 killer of women.
A simple blood-pressure check -- especially for older women -- is a formidable tool in the prevention, detection and treatment of serious heart and blood-vessel disease. The importance of high blood pressure is underlined by the fact that it is much more common in women than in men, once women reach age 60.
For additional information on high blood pressure and what women can do to keep theirs at a healthy level, I consulted with Dr. Paul Whelton, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and director of the School's Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research.
Q: What is high blood pressure, and how prevalent is it?
A: Blood pressure is the pressure exerted by the blood on the walls of the blood vessels and arteries. In other words, it is a measure of how hard the heart is working. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and death.
Q: How does a woman know if she has blood-pressure problems?
A: High blood pressure is called the "silent killer" because it is unusual for people to have symptoms, except with very advanced disease. This highlights the importance of regular blood-pressure checks -- at least every one to two years, even if a woman is in good health. African-American women must take particular care to have these checkups, since they have a higher risk of high blood pressure than white women. Preventive measures can be employed once the condition is detected.
Q: What can a woman do to stay within her "normal" range?
A: First, avoid being overweight. Excess weight accounts for 30 percent of high blood pressure in the United States. Make smarter food choices, paying attention to fat and calories.
Second, stay physically active by engaging in a moderate amount of exercise. Exercise can take the form of walking, cycling, swimming or similar activities on a regular basis (at least four times a week).
Third, limit sodium intake. Eliminating salt from home cooking is a good start.
Finally, limit your intake of alcohol, which is responsible for 5 percent to 10 percent of all high blood pressure in this country.
Dr. Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is founding director of its Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.