Survey Suggests Link between Racism, High Blood Pressure in African Americans
Researchers at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta have provided the first empirical evidence suggesting that racism may be a contributing factor to the unusually high prevalence of high blood pressure and its attendant cardiovascular effects among African Americans.
The connection was revealed by a survey of 400 African Americans’ perceptions of stress and racism led by Dr. Sharon Davis, chief of the Social Epidemiology Research Division at Morehouse.
Davis, a social epidemiologist whose research includes the effects of stress on blood pressure, and her colleagues undertook the survey as a means to quantitatively explore whether the unique stresses caused by racism have any clear effects on the cardiovascular health of African Americans.
“Stress has been proven in previous studies to be an important contributing factor to the prevalence of hypertension,” Davis says. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a condition that puts individuals at increased risk for suffering heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular ailments. African Americans experience the highest prevalence of hypertension of any group in the United States, Davis says. More than a third of Black Americans have high blood pressure, and they suffer a 1.8 times greater rate of fatal stroke and a 1.5 times greater chance of death due to heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
Davis and her colleagues devised a study group of 400 Black adults, half of whom were hypertensive and half of whom had normal blood pressure. When survey participants were asked if they had ever experienced racism or discrimination in any aspect of their life that was stressful, the response was generally the same among those with high blood pressure and those without. Most participants reported experiencing an incident because of their race and skin color.
But when participants were asked to rank their level of perceived stress specifically as it pertained to incidents of racism or discrimination, “the response was different,” Davis says.
“The hypertensive African Americans were more likely to report higher levels of stress due to perceived racism and discrimination compared to those with normal blood pressure.”
The responses cut across all educational levels of study participants in both groups. Davis points out that the study findings suggest a possible correlation between perceived racism and higher rates of hypertension in African Americans. The findings also suggest African Americans may react differently when confronted with racism and discrimination, Davis says.
While Davis’ work provides the first quantitative evidence of a connection between racism and high blood pressure, she is quick to note that these survey results do not prove a direct causal link. “This wasn’t a clinical study,” she says. “These are associations that have been tested in an empirical way.”
Davis believes the results could help in improving health care for minority patients. “From a public health standpoint it would be significant to identify risk factors that may be unique to particular subpopulations,” Davis says. “It might be possible to develop interventions, to ameliorate or address ways for patients to cope with these unique stressors.”
Davis will discuss the survey’s findings linking racism and hypertension rates at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) on Nov. 1, in Orlando, Fla.
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