How Being Black Affects Your Blood Pressure

doctors rushing with patient on stretcher

If you’re black, pay special attention to your blood pressure — even if you
think you’re healthy.

That’s because high blood pressure (hypertension) affects certain groups of
people differently than others. And for black people in the United States, high
blood pressure often occurs earlier in life, is more severe and has more
complications.

Find out why you may be at greater risk of high blood pressure if you’re
black and what steps you can take to protect yourself.

Why being black increases your risk of high blood pressure

If you’re black and living in the United States, you’re more likely than a
person of another race to develop hypertension, and to develop it earlier in
your life. And once you have the disease, you’re more likely to have severe
complications, such as stroke, kidney failure and heart disease. In addition,
blacks often don’t get treatment until their blood pressure has been high for so
long that vital organs have already started to suffer damage.

Researchers are still studying precisely why some blacks are at greater risk.
The issue essentially boils down to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate.

  • Genetic susceptibility (nature). Genetics
    has historically been blamed for a higher rate of hypertension among blacks.
    That thinking has been supported by evidence that blacks as a group respond
    differently to certain blood pressure medications and are more sensitive to the
    blood pressure raising effects of sodium. Newer data, however, indicate that
    blacks living traditional lifestyles in rural African countries experience few
    blood pressure problems. This may point the finger, instead, at environmental
    causes.
  • Environment (nurture). Worldwide, the
    rate of hypertension among blacks is not unusually high compared with that of
    whites. In the United States, though, about 41 percent of blacks have
    hypertension, compared with 27 percent of whites. Some researchers suggest that
    difference is the result of socioeconomic disparities between blacks and whites.
    Blacks have a higher rate of obesity, may eat a diet high in sodium and low in
    potassium, and may experience more socioeconomic stress because of societal
    prejudices. All of those are linked with high blood pressure.

A healthy lifestyle is important regardless of skin color

For researchers, resolving these issues is important because doing so can
help improve the prevention and treatment of high blood pressure among blacks in
general. While researchers continue to grapple with these issues, you can take
steps today to care for yourself and your family members.

No matter what your skin color, certain unhealthy lifestyle habits can
increase your risk of developing high blood pressure or interfere with your
efforts to lower your blood pressure when it’s too high. You can minimize your
lifestyle-related risks by following these guidelines:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Reduce sodium in your diet.
  • Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Avoid tobacco products and secondhand smoke.
  • Cope with stress in a positive way.

In addition, talk to your doctor about how often you should get your blood
pressure checked. Although most healthy adults need a check-up only every two
years, if you’re black, you may need to have your blood pressure checked more
frequently — perhaps annually — since you’re at a higher risk.

Following these kinds of healthy habits can also benefit black youngsters
because of the increased risk of hypertension they face. If you’re concerned
about your child’s health, talk to his or her pediatrician about age-specific
blood pressure goals.

Treating high blood pressure when you’re black

Anyone can develop dangerous complications from high blood pressure. But if
you’re black, these complications tend to be more severe and are more likely to
result in death.

Complications include:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Blindness
  • Dementia

Treating your high blood pressure effectively can help reduce your chance of
these complications. Living a healthy lifestyle is the cornerstone of treating
high blood pressure. But many people also must take blood pressure medications
(antihypertensives).

Your doctor may recommend that you first try a thiazide-type diuretic — the
same general recommendation as for white people starting medication treatment.
Your doctor may also suggest taking a calcium antagonist (calcium channel
blocker), either by itself or along with a diuretic.

If you have severe high blood pressure or complications, you might need
additional medications.

The goal is to reduce your blood pressure to at least 140/90 millimeters of
mercury (mm Hg. Getting it even lower is better for your health.

Taking charge pays off in the long run

Although you may be more likely to develop high blood pressure and face a
greater risk of complications than your white counterparts, don’t get
discouraged.

The good news is that if you follow a healthy lifestyle and stick with your
treatment regimen, your blood pressure is likely to respond well. And you’ll
reap the same rewards for controlling your blood pressure that anyone would — a
longer and healthier life.

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