Stress and Health

We've long known that middle-aged men are much more likely than women to have high blood pressure—about 36 percent of men versus 23 percent of women between the ages of 45 and 54. And, since high blood pressure can lead to stroke, it's not surprising that many more men keel over from these "brain attacks"—roughly 71,000 versus 50,000 per year for men and women, respectively, between 45 and 64 years old.

The standard explanation for this difference between the sexes has been lifestyle. Men are more likely to smoke, be overweight, drink alcohol, and avoid exercise—all risk factors for high blood pressure. Undoubtedly, poor health habits account for much of the difference, but there's a detail that doesn't quite fit the explanation. Black men are at far greater risk of high blood pressure than are white men, and nearly twice as many die of strokes.

Dr. James Blumenthal, of Duke University, thinks he has an explanation. Blumenthal studied how patients respond to stress—both mental and physical—and found that the blood vessels of both males and females, and blacks and whites reacted quite differently. On average, the blood vessels of white women constricted less under stress than did those of white men, and black men showed greater constriction than either group. The greater the constriction, the higher the blood pressure.

We've long suspected that stress can cause or aggravate high blood pressure, but this study is the first to explain how it might work. And it highlights how important it is for men (and especially black men) to do what they can to reduce the stress in their lives. It's not easy, but here are a few tips that can help:

  • Get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning to reduce the rush.
  • Stick to the right lane on the freeway. The minute or two gained by aggressive driving isn't worth the stress.
  • Take some time each day to review long-term plans. Stress lies in the moment-by-moment pressures.
  • Breathe in and out four times very slowly when you feel the stress piling up.
  • Take a walk at lunch time. Exercising and getting away from the office can work wonders.
  • Volunteer. Doing things for others pushes your own troubles out of the limelight.
  • Save time for yourself. Do something totally indulgent—take a nap, for example—at least once a week.
  • Have sex more often. It helps put things in perspective and reduces tension at the same time. Guys, you can consider that a prescription.


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