06/11/2012 03:27 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

Hidden Heart Disease Uncovered In African Americans With High Blood Pressure: Study

African Americans are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than other ethnic groups, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports, but new research from Wayne State University School of Medicine may help bring that number down.

In a study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, researchers found that nine in ten African-American patients with hypertension also suffered hidden heart disease caused by high blood pressure, even though they exhibited no symptomatic signs of the disease.

"These results present a tremendous opportunity to screen for heart disease before it becomes symptomatic, especially in a population with high rates of hypertension," study author Phillip Levy, M.D., M.P.H. said, according to Medical News Today. "If we can detect incipient heart disease early, we have a better shot at treating it before it turns into a full-blown health emergency."

Among patients in the study, 93 percent had a history of hypertension and none knew their high blood pressure was affecting their hearts, findings that concur with HHS statistics that show that while African Americans are 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, they're 10 percent less likely than their non-Hispanic White counterparts to have their blood pressure under control.

A study published in the fall of last year, also addressed the need to head off high blood pressure early on. In a sample of more than 18,000 adults ages 18 to 85, blacks with prehypertension were found to have a 35 percent greater risk of progressing to high blood pressure than whites.

Experts define prehypertension as blood pressure ranging between 120/80 mm Hg and 139/89 mm Hg; hypertension is 140/90 mm Hg or higher. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are five proven ways to keep high blood pressure risk in check:

  • Eat healthy foods. Try the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods. Eat less saturated fat and total fat.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you're overweight, losing even 5 pounds can lower your blood pressure.
  • Use less salt. A lower sodium level — 1,500 milligrams (mg) a day — is appropriate for people 51 years of age or older, and individuals of any age who are African-American or who have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. Otherwise healthy people can aim for 2,300 mg a day or less. While you can reduce the amount of salt you eat by putting down the saltshaker, you should also pay attention to the amount of salt that's in the processed foods you eat, such as canned soups or frozen dinners.
  • Increase physical activity. Regular physical activity can help lower your blood pressure and keep your weight under control. Strive for at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day.
  • Limit alcohol. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation — up to one drink a day for women, two drinks a day for men.

Levy also notes the role doctors should be playing in helping to curb exceptionally high rates of hypertension and heart disease among blacks.

"Emergency physicians are uniquely positioned to lessen the overall impact of chronic high blood pressure in at-risk communities," Levy said. "Blood pressure readings are taken for every patient in the ER. By not just taking in new information but also acting on it, we can substantively contribute to much-needed secondary disease prevention efforts," he added, pointing to the high-risk population in his study and emergency room physicians' underestimation of the prevalence of hidden hypertensive heart disease in inner-city African Americans.

In addition to their status as a high-risk group, African Americans are also more likely to rely on emergency rooms for treatment because of lack of access to primary care physicians, a 2009 study from UCLA found.