African Americans and heart disease

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Managing high blood pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is more common in African Americans, and can begin as early as childhood. Researchers believe one of the reasons African Americans are prone to high blood pressure may be due to an increased sensitivity to salt in their diet.

Other risk factors for high blood pressure include:

  • a family history of high blood pressure
  • being overweight or not exercising much
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • smoking
  • having other diseases such as diabetes
  • aging

Why is high blood pressure a serious health problem?

Photo of a man and a womanHigh blood pressure strains your blood vessels and your heart so it has to work harder to push blood on every heartbeat. This can lead to an enlarged heart and, eventually, heart failure or a heart attack. The high pressure in the blood vessels can also cause blood to leak out into the brain, which can lead to a stroke. That’s why it’s so important to treat high blood pressure early and bring it down to normal levels as quickly as possible.

How can I lower my blood pressure?

Find out the numbers from your tests and your target range. If your blood pressure is too high, your doctor may recommend medications and lifestyle changes to bring it into normal range.

Medication

Most people with hypertension start by taking a diuretic such as Hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) alone or in combination with an Angiotensin Converting Enzyme Inibitor (ACEI) such as Lisinopril. You may also need other medications. You’ll get the best results from your medicine by following your doctor’s instructions. If you need help staying on schedule or coping with possible side effects, try these tips.

Lifestyle changes

In addition to medication, simple diet and lifestyle changes will help lower and keep your blood pressure in normal range.

Diet

You don’t have to go on a special diet to see a difference in your blood pressure—just try to cook at home more often and cut back on salt and fat. The American Heart Association offers these tips for eating healthy:

  • Limit fast food and convenience foods to once a week or less and processed foods and meats (such as canned, packaged, or frozen meals, chips, pickles, salt pork, hot dogs, sausage or lunch meats) to no more than five servings a week.
  • Use herbs, spices, vinegar, or lemon juice, citrus zest, or chilies or salt-free seasoning mixes add flavor to your food. Check out the DASH diet for more suggestions.
  • Cook with lower fat oils such as sunflower, canola or olive oil instead of butter.
  • Eat several servings of vegetables and fruit each day. If you can’t eat fresh vegetables, use frozen ones. Avoid canned, processed and preserved vegetables which often have a lot of sodium.
  • Eat grilled, baked, or broiled fish at least twice a week.
  • Compare the sodium (salt) content on the Nutrition Facts label of similar products (for example, different brands of tomato sauce) and choose the products with less sodium.
  • Choose whole grain foods.
  • Use plain fat-free or low-fat dairy products instead of butter, whole milk, or heavy cream.
  • Remove skin from chicken before cooking.

Other lifestyle changes

  • Maintain a healthy weight to lighten the load on your heart.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than one drink each day for women, and no more than two drinks each day for men.
  • If you smoke, make a plan to quit.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control.
  • Try to get moderate aerobic exercise — such as walking — at least 30 minutes on most days.

How often do I need to have my blood pressure tested?

High blood pressure is a major cause of heart disease — and you may not experience any symptoms. The only way to tell whether you have high blood pressure is to have it measured. This is done during most doctor visits. Ask your doctor how often you should have your blood pressure checked and if you should monitor it at home.

The outlook

High blood pressure poses a serious health risk to the African American community, but the good news is it can be managed. Just remember the keys are:

  • follow a healthy lifestyle
  • see your doctor
  • take medications as prescribed
  • get your blood pressure checked regularly

Reviewed by Eleanor Levin, MD, FACC, and Anthony Steimle, MD, FACC, November 2015
Additional Kaiser Permanente reviewers

©2015 Kaiser Permanente

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