Young women tend to have lower blood pressure, and less risk of hypertension, compared to young men. As people age, both blood pressure and the risk of hypertension increase in both sexes; this occurs most strikingly in women after menopause. However, the mechanisms for these influences of sex and age remain incompletely understood. In this review we are specifically interested in the interaction between neural (sympathetic nerve activity; SNA) and haemodynamic factors (cardiac output, blood pressure and vascular resistance) and how these change with sex and age. While peripheral vascular SNA can vary 7- to 10-fold among normotensive young men and women, it is reproducible in a given individual. Surprisingly, higher levels of SNA are not associated with higher blood pressures in these groups. In young men, high SNA is associated with higher total peripheral vascular resistance (TPR), and appears to be balanced by lower cardiac output and less peripheral vascular responsiveness to adrenergic stimulation. Young women do not exhibit the SNA-TPR relationship. Recent evidence suggests that β-adrenergic vasodilatation offsets the vasoconstrictor effects of α-adrenergic vasoconstriction in young women, which may contribute to the generally lower blood pressures in this group. Sympathetic nerve activity increases with age, and in groups over 40, levels of SNA are more tightly linked to levels of blood pressure. The potentially protective β-adrenergic effect seen in young women appears to be lost after menopause and probably contributes to the increased blood pressure and increased risk of hypertension seen in older women.
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