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Exp Physiol. 2016 Mar;101(3):349-55. doi: 10.1113/EP085146. Epub 2015 Aug 16.

Sex differences and blood pressure regulation in humans.

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Department of Anesthesiology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, USA.
Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, The Sahlgren Academy at Gothenburg University, Göteborg, Sweden.
Thermal and Mountain Medicine Division, US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Natick, MA, USA.


What is the topic of this review? Over the past decade, our team has investigated interindividual variability in human blood pressure regulation. What advances does it highlight? In men, we have found a tight relationship between indices of sympathetic activity and vascular resistance across the age span. This relationship is absent in young women but seen in postmenopausal women. These sex and age differences in vascular resistance are largely a result of changes in the balance of vasodilating and vasoconstricting adrenergic receptor tone. When these changes are considered along with cardiac output, a coherent picture is beginning to emerge of why blood pressure rises more with age in women than men. Arterial pressure is a key regulated variable in the cardiovascular system with important health implications. Over the last 12 years, we have used physiological measurements, including muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA), to explore the balance among mean arterial blood pressure, cardiac output and total peripheral resistance (TPR) in normotensive humans. We have shown that these determinants of blood pressure can vary widely in different subjects and how they vary depends on sex and age. In young men, there is a direct relationship between MSNA and TPR but no relationship with blood pressure. This is because cardiac output is proportionally lower in those with high MSNA and TPR. In contrast, in young women there is no relationship between MSNA and TPR (or cardiac output); this is because β-adrenergic vasodilator mechanisms offset α-adrenergic vasoconstriction. Thus, blood pressure is unrelated to MSNA in young women. In older women, β-adrenergic vasodilator mechanisms are diminished, and a direct relationship between MSNA and TPR is seen. In older men, the relationships among these variables are less clear cut, perhaps owing to age-related alterations in endothelial function. With ageing, the relationship between MSNA and blood pressure becomes positive, more so in women than in men. The finding that the physiological control of blood pressure is so different in men and women and that it varies with age suggests that future studies of mechanisms of hypertension will reveal corresponding differences among groups.

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