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Low Wages, High Blood Pressure

Your job could make you sick

Low-wage earners, especially women and young people, are at the highest risk of developing hypertension, according to a recent study from UC Davis.

“We were surprised that low wages were such a strong risk factor for two populations not typically associated with hypertension, which is more often linked with being older and male,” says J. Paul Leigh, senior author of the study and professor of public health sciences at UC Davis. “Our outcome shows women and younger employees working at the lowest pay scales should be screened regularly for hypertension as well.”

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, occurs when the force of circulating blood against artery walls is too high. The disease affects approximately 1 in 3 American adults and costs more than $90 billion each year in health-care services, medications and missed work days. It also is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke, both of which are leading causes of death and disability.

More than 40 percent of African Americans have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association. We are also more likely to develop a more severe form of the disease and get it at an earlier age than our white counterparts. The medical community believes high rates of diabetes and obesity put African Americans at greater risk for hypertension. Researchers have also found that there may be a gene that makes African Americans much more salt sensitive. In people who have this gene, as little as one extra gram (half a teaspoon) of salt could raise blood pressure

The UC Davis study looked at the work and health records from more than 5,000 households, focusing on working adults between the ages of 25 and 65 with an income of $2.78 to $77 an hour. It is the first study of its kind to take a worker’s income into account, finding that young workers and women between the ages of 25 and 44 were at the highest risk of developing hypertension.

You may not be able to change your income status, but you can try these tips to keep your blood pressure in check.

  • Give salt a break. Avoid processed foods and make sure you consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. Check nutritional labels to keep track of your sodium levels.
  • Stop smoking. The nicotine in cigarettes makes you two to six more times likely to suffer a heart attack, according the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Smoking throughout the day also means a continually high blood pressure, damaged blood vessel walls and expedited hardening of arteries, which could eventually lead to heart disease.
  • Hit the gym. Being overweight increases your risk for hypertension and makes you more likely to develop heart disease. As your weight increases, so does your blood pressure—even losing 10 pounds can significantly lower hypertension. Try to engage in 30 minutes of moderate (gardening, swimming, walking) physical activity a day.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Small amounts of alcohol can actually lower your blood pressure by a couple of points, while more than one drink a day can do more harm than good, according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • Monitor your blood pressure. “Women may not be aware that they are at risk for hypertension,” Leigh says. While having your blood pressure checked is a routine part of a medical exam, the experts recommend a regular blood pressure check, instead of waiting until there’s a problem.


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