Family history of hypertension is related to maladaptive behavioral responses

May 12, 2002

WASHINGTON -- People's risk for hypertension associated with having a parental history of hypertension may be influenced by observing how their parents handled stress, says researchers who examined relations among numerous behavioral responses and family history of hypertension. This study, reported on in the May issue of Health Psychology, finds that offspring of hypertensive parents react more negatively, both behaviorally and physiologically, to stressful situations.

The reason may in part be because certain behaviors, like conflict avoidance and inadequate expression of feelings, were part of their family environments and have been passed from generation to generation in hypertensive families, says lead author Nicole L. Frazer, Ph.D., and colleagues of West Virginia University. Those offspring who have hypertensive parents not only exhibit exaggerated physiological reactivity to stressors but also exhibit learned maladaptive behavioral responses to stressors, said Frazer.

The authors examined the behavioral responses, heart rate and blood pressure of 64 healthy college students who had parents with and without hypertension during stressful mental activities to explain the observed differences in cardiovascular reactivity to stress. The participants included 16 men and 16 women who had parents with hypertension (PH+) and 16 men and 16 women who had parents without hypertension (PH -). All the participants participated in a mental arithmetic task, a mirror tracing task, and two interpersonal role-plays to mimic stressful mental activities.

Both the males and the females in the PH + group had higher resting heart rates than the females and males in the PH - group. Furthermore, those in the PH + group had their systolic blood pressure go up more during the mental tasks and they also reacted with more negative verbal and nonverbal behavior during both the interpersonal and non-interpersonal laboratory-induced stress tasks than the PH - participants. The nonverbal behaviors of the PH + group included more rolling of the eyes, sighing, and lack of eye contact. The verbal behaviors of the PH+ group included disagreeing statements and verbal put downs during the role-plays.

Interestingly, even though the PH + participants demonstrated exaggerated cardiovascular responses and a greater frequency of negative verbal and nonverbal behaviors compared to the PH -participants, these differences were independent. Those PH + participants with the high blood pressure responses and resting heart rates were not always the same PH + participants who responded more with negative verbal and nonverbal behaviors, said the authors. "It is possible that to determine the risk for cardiovascular disease among offspring of hypertensive parents may require assessing behavioral responses to stress in addition to assessing cardiovascular responses to stressors."

Additional information is needed about the nature of the family environment in hypertensive households to know what the children and parents experience on a day-to-day basis, said the authors. The connection between family arguments and cardiovascular responding has been shown in research on couples from hypertensive families. "This suggests," said Frazer, "that for offspring of hypertensive parents, certain behavioral styles of interacting in relationships might predispose them to essential hypertension or cardiovascular disease."

If the relation between these behavioral styles of interacting are shown to be related to risk for cardiovascular disease, early interventions involving conflict management, relaxation, assertiveness and social skills training may be considered for hypertensive families. In this case, learning these skills may break a pattern and help those individuals from hypertensive families change both their physiological and behavioral responses to environmental stressors and minimize their risk for cardiovascular disease, said Frazer.
Article: "Do Behavioral Responses Mediate or Moderate the Relation Between Cardiovascular Reactivity to Stress and Parental History of Hypertension," Nicole L. Frazer, Ph.D., Kevin T. Larkin, Ph.D., and Jeffrey L. Goodie, Ph.D., West Virginia University; Health Psychology, Vol 21, No. 3.

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at )

Nicole L. Frazer, PhD can be reached by telephone at 301-295-9466 or by email at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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