Much of what we know about human health and disease comes from studies in male animals. However, researchers are finding that for blood pressure control, what’s true for male animals is not necessarily true for females. One in three adults in the U.S. has high blood pressure (hypertension) and of those, only half have their hypertension under control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Understanding sex differences in the way the disease develops and behaves is important to improve hypertension care for both men and women.
Here are some of the newest findings on hypertension-related sex differences, presented in November at the American Physiological Society’s Physiology and Gender conference:
Women’s kidneys maintain the body’s salt levels differently than men’s. The kidneys are very important organs in the control of blood pressure. They do this by managing levels of sodium (salt) and potassium. Luciana Veiras, PhD, of the University of Southern California showed that female rats that were put on a fast and then fed a diet high in potassium had higher levels of sodium in their urine than their male counterparts did. This demonstrates that female and male kidneys respond differently to increases in blood potassium and suggests that blood pressure control also differs between men and women.
Different hormones may drive obesity-related high blood pressure in men and women. Research has shown that obesity causes hypertension. Fat cells create a hormone called leptin that stimulates the brain to increase blood pressure. However, the reason it increases blood pressure has primarily been studied only in male animals. It was unknown if the same was true for obese female animals. Eric Belin de Chantemele, PhD, of Georgia Regents University, presented findings suggesting that another hormone contributed to obesity-induced high blood pressure in females: aldosterone.
The immune cells that cause hypertension in men may not be the same in women. Studies in male research animals show that inflammation-promoting immune cells are involved in the development of high blood pressure. Jennifer Sullivan, PhD, of Georgia Regents University, presented work suggesting that the immune system actions in cardiovascular disease are not the same in men and women. She found that hypertensive female rats have more anti-inflammatory immune cells. Additionally, the immune cells that cause high blood pressure in male animals aren’t as common in female animals with high blood pressure.
As research studies continue to include more gender diversity, science will uncover more ways that men and women differ in health and disease, making personalized medicine and therapies better for both male and female patients.
Jessica Faulkner, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at Augusta University.