It’s been dubbed as the “Silent Killer!”
No, this is not the title of a horror movie, but high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can have scary consequences if left untreated. And, that is especially true in the Black community, where hypertension is prevalent and should not be ignored.
High blood pressure can be defined as having a systolic number greater than 130 or 140, and a diastolic number greater than 80 or 90 depending on your age and other health conditions, according to Dr. Sharon K. Okonkwo-Holmes, a family medicine physician with Kaiser Permanente Southern California. Her research includes studying how certain medical conditions – such as hypertension – affect the African American community.
“When our blood pressure is high, sometimes we can feel headaches or notice leg swelling and shortness of breath, but often times, there are no signs or symptoms, making it dangerous,” Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes said. “Early diagnosis and treatment can save your life. When your blood pressure is controlled, this decreases your risk of having a stroke, heart attack, and living with chronic kidney disease that can lead to dialysis.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more men in America have high blood pressure than women. Hypertension is also more common in Black adults than White, Asian, and Hispanic adults.
Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes noted there are many reasons for this phenomenon, including diet.
“When we look at the history of enslaved Africans, we find that in Africa, they were reliant on a largely indigenous plant-based diet of sorghum, pearl millet, African rice, cowpea (black-eyed peas), African yams, okra and watermelon,” she said. “The enslaved Africans’ ability to continue this plant-based diet was curtailed in slavery.”
For the great majority of Africans, every day brings a meal much like the one the day before, and the ones of centuries before, Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes said. Today, however, she notes this is not the case for Black Americans who live in a society that relies more on processed and packaged goods.
“A people who were once dependent on foods cultivated from the land are now able to access a wealth of foreign fat and cholesterol-filled goodies that have been demonstrated to be bad for your overall health,” she explained.
“In poorer areas of our communities, where many Black Americans live, there’s a distinct increase in the prevalence of fast-food chain stores offering a broad variety of cheap, unhealthy foods. In contrast, more wealthy communities enjoy the benefits of health food stores. Thus, it’s not a coincidence that many African Americans have less exposure to healthy food options and suffer the consequences of poor nutrition more than other Americans. That is a major contributor to health problems, including hypertension.”
Another important factor is the wear and tear on the body, which accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress.
“Research has proven that living in a Black body in America is a predisposition to chronic stress ,” Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes noted. “Commonly perceived or actual experiences of racism, trauma, social injustice and systemic racism increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.”
What Can I Do?
Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes encouraged Black Americans to eat healthy, exercise and maintain good mental health to keep their blood pressure as close to 120/80 as possible, because that means that your heart will lift less weight and face less pressure. A lean healthy heart prevents chronic kidney disease (and dialysis), heart attacks, strokes, and other serious health consequences, she said.
To prevent hypertension or lower your blood pressure, Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes recommends eating more healthy food such as adopting the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. The DASH diet is rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. It includes fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans and nuts. It limits foods that are high in salt, saturated fat such as fatty meats, and full-fat dairy products.
She also emphasized the importance of any form of exercise you find challenging and enjoyable, such as brisk walking for about 30 minutes five days a week. Please consult with your health care provider before undertaking an exercise regimen, however.
Finally, prioritizing enjoyment is a key in maintaining a normal blood pressure. With all the stressors of life, celebrating Black joy, laughter, comedy, attending church, prayer/meditation, time with family and friends, as well as speaking with a therapist, pastor, barber, or beautician are among many important adult coping mechanisms Black people living in America can employ to keep their body in good health, Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes said.
When Should I Seek Medical Attention?
If your high blood pressure persists despite lifestyle changes, Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes noted medication is a viable option. She recommended that African Americans check their blood pressure regularly at home and have an annual physical with their health care provider, where a discussion related to medication, side effects, or any other questions should occur.
“The complications of hypertension have claimed many influential lives in the Black community,” Dr. Okonkwo-Holmes said. “This can be prevented. But, it’s up to us to be aware of our blood pressure numbers, keep a close eye on it, and when needed, take action to lower it.”
Kaiser Permanente offers valuable information related to how to maintain a good blood pressure.