Doctors may need to treat high blood pressure in women earlier and more aggressively than they do in men, according to scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. In a new study, published in the December edition of Therapeutic Advances in Cardiovascular Disease, the researchers found significant differences in the mechanisms that cause high blood pressure in women as compared to men.

(Diabetes drugs affect hearts of men, women differently)

"The medical community thought that high blood pressure was the same for both sexes and treatment was based on that premise," said Carlos Ferrario, M.D., professor of surgery at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. "This is the first study to consider sex as an element in the selection of antihypertensive agents or base the choice of a specific drug on the various factors accounting for the elevation in blood pressure."

In the comparative study, 100 men and women age 53 and older with untreated high blood pressure and no other major diseases were evaluated using an array of specialized tests that indicated whether the heart or the blood vessels were primarily involved in elevating the blood pressure. These tests, which can be done in a doctor's office, can provide important information about the state of an individual's circulation.

(Antihypertensives associated with lower dialysis risk for patients with advanced CKD)

The tests measured hemodynamic – the forces involved in the circulation of blood – and hormonal characteristics of the mechanisms involved in the development of high blood pressure in men and women.

The researchers found 30 to 40% more vascular disease in the women compared to the men for the same level of elevated blood pressure. In addition, there were significant physiologic differences in the women's cardiovascular system, including types and levels of hormones involved in blood pressure regulation, that contribute to the severity and frequency of heart disease.

(NIH study links family structure to high blood pressure in African-American men)

"Our study findings suggest a need to better understand the female sex-specific underpinnings of the hypertensive processes to tailor optimal treatments for this vulnerable population," Ferrario said. "We need to evaluate new protocols – what drugs, in what combination and in what dosage – to treat women with high blood pressure."

Find more articles about hypertension