Unlocking the mystery of high blood pressure in blacks

For more than a decade, medical researchers have recognized that African-Americans have a higher incident of high blood pressure and hypertension than any other American demographic. But their African counterparts don’t seem to have the same problem.

Researchers at the Morehouse School of Medicine, in collaboration with researchers at Howard University and in Nigeria and Ghana, are trying determine whether the African-American tendency for high blood pressure is genetic or a product of the American environment.

Gary Gibbons, a Morehouse geneticist, says medical students will be taking blood samples from hospital patients admitted with heart problems, as well as from healthy African-Americans in Atlanta, to get a look at their DNA.

“This is an active area of research just now because some of the technology is just emerging,” says Gibbons. “We now have the technology to scan the human genome and look for variations.”

In June, the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Project and its privately-owned rival, Celera Genomics, announced that they had identified about 97 percent of the human genetic “code”. The scanners both groups used and their streams of code have encouraged researchers around the world to dig deeper into DNA for answers to our health mysteries.

Gibbons says high blood pressure probably results from a cluster of genes in most cases. According to established research, a single gene mutation accounts for less than 1 percent of high blood pressure cases. Other factors could be the highly salted foods and sedentary lifestyles of most Americans. Finding out what really makes the difference will help people of all races.

“There are those people, of any background, who eat all the wrong things and they are sedentary and they live right next door to these other people, yet they never develop high blood pressure,” says Gibbons. “And we’ll be looking for possible protective genes in those people, too.”

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