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Amy Non (Cohort 9) American Journal of Public Health

African Ancestry Not Linked to High Blood Pressure Among African Americans

New Study Finds Education Trumps Genetics as Predictor of Hypertension

African ancestry is not a key predictor of why African Americans suffer disproportionately from high blood pressure in comparison to White Americans, according to a new study by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Harvard University.

African Americans are more at risk of developing high blood pressure, commonly known as the “silent killer” since it often goes undiagnosed and may present few, if any, symptoms. African Americans develop high blood pressure at younger ages than other Americans, and are more likely to develop complications resulting from the condition. Stroke, heart failure, kidney disease, blindness and dementia are linked to high blood pressure or hypertension.

The study findings show a significant association between education levels and high blood pressure in African Americans, but not African genetic ancestry. These findings dispel long-held beliefs that West African ancestry is a primary contributor to the high rates of hypertension among Black Americans.

“Improved access to education in African American communities may help to reduce racial inequalities of health,” said lead author Amy Non, PhD. “We hope these findings will help African Americans and their physicians to better manage high blood pressure.”

Each year of education was associated with a 0.51 mmHg decrease in blood pressure, according to the study. With 4 years of additional education, there is a predicted decrease of 2 mmHg systolic (the “top” number) blood pressure, a decrease that could contribute to a considerable reduction in hypertension-related deaths nationwide.   

Education can contribute to increased health knowledge and health behaviors, and better employment opportunities; it can also positively influence psychological outlook.

While previous research has documented some of the environmental causes of hypertension, such as socioeconomic status and stress, few studies have simultaneously compared environmental and genetic factors.

The researchers examined data from more than 3,690 adults from the Family Blood Pressure Program (FBPP) Study. The FBPP study examined hypertension and cardiovascular disparities in multiple ethnic groups. Participants included self-identified White, African American, Mexican American and Asian individuals; however, Non’s study focused exclusively on Black-White disparities.

“While genetics undoubtedly plays a role in hypertension, our findings suggest that education level plays an even larger role in health disparities in hypertension,” Non said. “This means that improved access to education among African Americans may reduce racial disparities in blood pressure.”

The study, “Education, Genetic Ancestry, and Blood Pressure in African Americans and Whites,” will be published in the August 2012 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

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The RWJF Health & Society Scholars Program is designed to build the nation’s capacity for research, leadership and policy change to address the broad range of factors that affect health. Additional information about RWJF Health & Society Scholars, including application information, can be found at www.healthandsocietyscholars.org.
 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable and timely change. For 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org.