Maharry, VU Study Show Hypertension In African Americans Can Be Prevented

April 02, 1998

African Americans are not necessarily genetically predisposed to hypertension, according to a study by a team of researchers from Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University that has discovered that hypertension, obesity and high cholesterol in African Americans can be prevented with a radical change in lifestyle.

Among the changes that the group recommends are a strict vegetarian diet, regular exercise and a strong spiritual support system.

Dr. David Sellers of Meharry Medical College facilitated the study, screening the nutrition and exercise habits of 223 members of the African Hebrew Israelite community, a group of African Americans who emigrated from the United States to southern Israel in the early 1970s. This is the first scientific study the group has allowed.

"I wanted to document the healthy lifestyle of this community because they are the first group of African Americans that have actually emigrated from America in large numbers and changed their entire way of life," Sellers said.

"Hearing firsthand accounts from the community members and learning that they had virtually no health problems was fascinating."

The findings by Sellers, fellow Meharry faculty Fred Ernst, Maciej S. Buchowski and Vanderbilt University psychologist David Schlundt were presented during a poster session Friday, March 27, at the Society of Behavioral Medicine Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

Sellers noted that across the board in virtually every aspect of health, the African Hebrew Israelite community is "winning the race." African Americans typically have a poor showing in rates of hypertension, obesity and high cholesterol.

"In the United States, rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity and heart disease are higher among African Americans, particularly African American women," said Vanderbilt's Schlundt, a professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Science.

Compared with whites, hypertension in African Americans develops earlier in life and average blood pressures are much higher. As a result, African Americans have an 80 percent higher rate of death from stroke, a 50 percent higher rate of death from heart disease and a 320 percent greater rate of hypertension related end-stage renal disease than those in the general population, according to a report released last year by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Schlundt, author of numerous articles, training manuals and professional papers on obesity, weight control, eating disorders, diabetes, diet and treatment of chronic diseases, developed a food frequency questionnaire for the research subjects. The participants, who adhere to a strict vegan Middle Eastern diet, also completed a three-day food diary.

The average age of the participants in the group was 43, with 43 percent of the group reporting a family history of hypertension and/or coronary artery disease.

Their diet was vegan, meaning a diet including no meat or animal products. More than 80 percent reported at least one session of exercise per week with 53 percent reporting three or more exercise sessions per week. Also, participants reported no cigarette use or abuse of alcohol or drugs.

The exercise and diet habits of the study participants are nearly the exact opposite of the habits of a comparable cross section of African Americans living in the United States. While members of the Israeli community are physically active, 75 percent of African Americans living in the United States are sedentary.

"Their whole focus is prevention," Sellers said. "If you have a proper diet, if you exercise and, most importantly, have a spiritual balance in your life, you can prevent most diseases."

The research subjects live a radically healthy lifestyle made even stronger by a social support system bonded by a commitment to the same religious beliefs.

"The spiritual focus of their community is health beneficial," Schlundt said.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center

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