According to a new study, a startling 75 percent of African Americans in the United States develop high blood pressure by the age of 55. That’s a far higher rate than seen among either white men (55 percent) or white women (40 percent).
So, why does this hit so close to home for black Americans?
“We started to see differences between blacks and whites by age 30,” said lead researcher S. Justin Thomas. “We need to start focusing on preventing hypertension [high blood pressure], particularly in blacks, at an early age,” he added.
Thomas is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of psychiatry.
It isn’t known why black Americans are more prone to high blood pressure at an earlier age than white Americans, Thomas said. But he speculated that a combination of lifestyle and genetics may explain why.
Thomas said preventing high blood pressure needs to start by getting kids to develop healthy habits.
“I don’t think you can start too early,” he said. “It should start at elementary school. If kids are told frequently that this is important, they will adopt it.”
High blood pressure can lead to serious health problems over time, the researchers noted.
Dr. Gregg Fonarow explained that high blood pressure “is a leading risk factor for heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease and premature cardiovascular death.” He is a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was not involved with the new study.
Black men and women in the study had twice the risk of high blood pressure than white men and women, even after adjusting for other differences, he added.
“Prevention, awareness, treatment, and control of high blood pressure is essential, as cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular events, disability, hospitalizations and financial hardship,” Fonarow explained.
For the study, Thomas and his colleagues collected data on nearly 3,900 young adults who were part of a heart disease risk study.
The participants were enrolled in the study when they were 18 to 30 years old, and they didn’t have high blood pressure at the time.
High blood pressure is defined as a systolic pressure (the upper number) of 130 mm Hg or higher and a diastolic pressure (the lower number) of 80 mm Hg or higher.
These blood pressure benchmarks were first released in 2017, replacing the previous definition of high blood pressure of 140/90 mm Hg.
This lower threshold for defining high blood pressure means even more Americans will be diagnosed with high blood pressure at younger ages, Thomas said.
Excess weight was the biggest risk factor for developing high blood pressure, regardless of sex or race, the researchers found.
Blacks and whites who kept to a DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet were able to lower their risk for high blood pressure, the study findings showed.
The DASH diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy, fish, poultry, beans, seeds and nuts, and low in red meat and salt.
Dr. Byron Lee is director of electrophysiology laboratories and clinics at the University of California, San Francisco. He said that “in many ways, 55 is the new 65. We used to not worry about hypertension until we reached our mid-60s, but it’s clear now that many of us need to take action much sooner.”
Lee pointed out that high blood pressure is a “modifiable risk factor for heart attack and stroke. And if we don’t act on it, we are missing a major opportunity to decrease mortality.”