Chinnapong/ShutterstockThere’s a reason why a nurse or doctor checks your blood pressure every time you walk into their office: Nearly a third of all adults in the United States have hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and the risk climbs as you get older. Among older adults 60 years and older, 63 percent have high blood pressure.
High blood pressure can lead to heart troubles and other chronic health conditions. For years scientists have known that hypertension is associated with a slightly increased breast cancer risk—women with high blood pressure have a 15 percent higher risk of breast cancer than women without high blood pressure—but no one was sure why. Now researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville may have found the link.
A protein may be to blame
According to a study published in the journal Hypertension, a protein called GRK4 may play a role in developing both high blood pressure and breast cancer. Researchers know that having high levels of this protein in your bloodstream may contribute to high blood pressure; the protein also happens to turn up in breast tissue.
To look for a connection, scientists examined both breast cancer cells and healthy breast tissue cells and found that the protein GRK4 was only present in the cancer cells. What’s more, when the researchers used drugs to block the action of the protein, they were able to slow down the growth of breast cancer cells.
Hypertension does not cause breast cancer
It’s important to note that simply because high blood pressure and breast cancer are linked does not mean that one causes the other, points out Janie Grumley, MD, breast surgical oncologist and director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Center and associate professor of Surgery at John Wayne Cancer Institute (she was not involved in the Hypertension study). She explains that the two health conditions share other risk factors that could explain why the two seem to be linked.
“For high blood pressure and breast cancer there are many confounding factors,” explains Dr. Grumley. “People at risk for high blood pressure tend to be older, have higher body weight, smokers, consume more alcohol and have less active lifestyles.” These risk factors for high blood pressure are the same ones that raise a person’s risk for breast cancer as well. So while this new study supports the link between the two diseases, it hasn’t found that one causes the other.
Other shared risk factors to consider
There are some common risk factors that raise your chances of being diagnosed with both hypertension and breast cancer beyond the presence of the GRK4 protein. “The most important risk factor that breast cancer and high blood pressure share is obesity,” says Jesus Anampa Mesias, MD, a medical oncologist at Montefiore Health System and an assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Obesity is associated with an increased risk of hormone receptor-positive breast cancer among postmenopausal women.”
Women are especially at risk of developing chronic diseases related to obesity. “Risk estimates from the Framingham heart study suggest that 65 percent of primary hypertension in women can be ascribed to excess weight,” explains Dr. Anampa.
Older age is another important risk factor for hypertension and breast cancer. “The median age for breast cancer diagnosis is 62 years, and about 70 percent of cases affect women over 55 years old,” says Dr. Anampa. Because the risk for hypertension also increases as we age, it is vital that we remain vigilant about the warning signs for both diseases.
When to seek treatment
If you are currently being treated for hypertension or breast cancer, talk with your provider about whether you should be checked for the other condition.
I have hypertension—now what?
If you are concerned about your blood pressure, the first step is to see your healthcare provider. Richard Wright, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, shares that there are many options for managing high blood pressure.
“Lifestyle and dietary changes, exercise, and weight loss are all effective at lowering the pressure—although perhaps difficult to continue for years,” explains Dr. Wright. “Hence most patients with hypertension end up on pills to lower their pressure.”
In addition to managing your blood pressure naturally, controlling it with medication can be very helpful. “Many effective inexpensive medications have proven efficacy in achieving goal blood pressure,” says Dr. Wright. “More than 95 percent of patients with hypertension can achieve their goal with such treatment.”
How can I lower my risk for both?
Fortunately, there are steps that most people can take to lower the risk of both high blood pressure and breast cancer. “According to the American Heart Association, simple changes such as eating a well-balanced, low salt diet, limiting alcohol consumption, increased physical activity, maintaining a healthy body weight, and eliminating smoking can help lower blood pressure,” says Dr. Grumley. “These lifestyle changes are the same recommendation given by the American Cancer Society to reduce breast cancer risk.” Start by adding the 50 best foods for your heart to your diet.