Hypertension, AKA High Blood Pressure Rates In Black Women Can Be Dangerous & Here’s How To Stay Ahead Of This Diagnosis

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The death of director John Singleton on Monday, April 29, rocked many people who’d been touched by his films. The Boyz n the Hood director was only 51 when he passed away, following a “major stroke” on April 17. After confirming the news, his family released a statement noting Singleton’s history of high blood pressure and urging other Black men and women to get ahead of this diagnosis.

"Like many African Americans, Singleton quietly struggled with hypertension,” his family wrote in a statement emailed to Bustle. “More than 40% of African American men and women have high blood pressure, which also develops earlier in life and is usually more severe. His family wants to share the message with all to please recognize the symptoms by going to Heart.org."

Unfortunately, recognizing the symptoms of high blood pressure can be difficult, because they aren’t always obvious.

“Most people don’t have symptoms of high blood pressure until it gets really high or has been high over a long period of time,” Dr. Andrew Sauer, MD, cardiologist and medical director of the Heart Failure Program at the University of Kansas Health System, tells Bustle. “Those that get symptoms complain of headache, shortness of breath, or chest pain.” The best way to check in on your blood pressure if you don't feel these symptoms is to see your doctor regularly, or see if your local pharmacy has a machine where you can check your blood pressure every so often.

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High blood pressure, aka hypertension, is defined as chronic blood pressure over 120 mmHg systolic and 80 mmHg diastolic. MmHg is a unit of measurement meaning millimeters of mercury. Systolic, which is the top number on a blood pressure measurement, means the part of the heartbeat where the muscle contracts and pushes blood out; diastolic, the bottom number, means the part of the heartbeat where it relaxes and lets blood in.

Having high blood pressure right after you just drank a cup of coffee or finished a run is very common, but if your blood pressure is higher than this measurement on an ongoing basis, without external stressors, you could be hypertensive. And having hypertension “indirectly is one of the most life-threatening conditions for Americans,” Dr. Sauer says. “It’s one of the risk factors for heart attack and the number one risk factor in America for stroke and heart failure. For those reasons, it is a big deal.”

Olena Yakobchuk

The reasons high blood pressure is so prevalent in the Black community are complicated, but genetics, higher rates of diabetes, and stress are all thought to be factors, according to the American Heart Association. Lifestyle changes like getting more aerobic exercise (like running or swimming), limiting the amount of sodium in your diet, and managing stress are all though to help people manage their risk of high blood pressure, or get their blood pressure down. But Dr. Sauer also points to lack of access to healthcare and a (very valid) mistrust of the medical establishment as reasons why Black Americans might have a harder time getting preventative treatment for high blood pressure.

“To help with that problem, we need more doctors and nurses who look like our patients, and we need to be more effective with our health communication, culturally and socially,” Dr. Sauer says.

Effective communication between doctors and patients is key, but so is being empowered to take control of your own health. If you think you might be at risk for high blood pressure, you can check it yourself at a local pharmacy (the instructions on the machine are pretty simple to follow). If the top number is over 120, talk to your doctor or cardiologist about implementing lifestyle changes that can help you manage your blood pressure.