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Blood Pressure of Older People Spikes in Winter

For 40 years scientists have known that blood pressure tends to go up in the winter—no matter what your age and, based on some past studies, no matter where you live. But in a new study published in the Jan. 12 Archives of Internal Medicine, French researchers say that cold weather is even harder on people as they age. As the mercury drops, blood pressure rises—with spikes increasing with age.

The two-year study, by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research, tracked 8,800 residents of three cities; it is among the first to include only people age 65 and older. Seasonal blood pressure increases were seen in both the systolic (top) and diastolic (bottom) numbers, with levels of 160/95 or higher affecting about one in four participants during the summer, and one in three during the winter. (Normal blood pressure is a reading of 120/80 or lower.) But the winter elevations were highest in the oldest participants­—those 80 and beyond.

One explanation of why age matters: “As you get older, blood vessels become stiffer and aren’t as pliant as they once were,” says Ross Fletcher, M.D., chief of staff at the VA Hospital in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the new study. But he has looked at seasonal variations in blood pressure, in a study tracking the medical records over five years of 444,000 veterans living in 15 cities. In results he presented at an American Heart Association meeting in 2007, Fletcher said that blood pressure climbs during the winter, ­­but among all ages and even in residents in southern climates. And like the French scientists, he found elevated levels in winter in cold-weather cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington.

But perhaps even more important: “No matter where you live, people eat more and exercise less in the winter,” Fletcher says, practices that can lead to hypertension.

The take-home message, from both the French researchers and Fletcher: Blood pressure should be monitored even more closely during cold weather, especially in those over age 80. And Fletcher says medications may need to be adjusted during winter.

Sid Kirchheimer writes regularly for theAARP Bulletinon health and finance.

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