Your family might be making your blood boil

October 3, 2018
Gigi Marino

Popular wisdom says that strong family relationships provide refuge, comfort, and security. Family protects us, soothes our ills, and calms our fears. Epidemiological studies have drawn a positive correlation between strong family support and physical and mental well-being. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Florida has turned that popular wisdom on its head, at least in their study of a population of African American families living in Tallahassee.

The study led by UF doctoral student Kia Fuller revealed a surprising result: African Americans who have a large family network also have high blood pressure. “A lot of studies show that family support generally improves physical and mental health,” said Fuller. “Our results show that it is more complicated than that. Specifically, if you are called upon to give a lot of family support, it can take a toll on your health.”

UF anthropology professors Connie Mulligan, Lance Gravlee, and Chris McCarty have been studying genetic and sociocultural risk factors for hypertension and related racial disparities in African Americans. High blood pressure presents more often in African Americans than their European American counterparts. Even so, this condition is not well understood.

Mulligan, corresponding author of the study said, “Hypertension shows racial disparities, with higher prevalence in African Americans, as do related cardiovascular diseases. In addition to a better understanding of hypertension and blood pressure variation, we are also interested in the genetic and sociocultural factors that underlie racial disparities in health, and we use hypertension as a model to study racial disparities.”

The researchers conducted extensive interviews with 138 African Americans in Tallahassee, Fla., who were asked to name 30 people with whom they were in regular contact. Individuals with higher blood pressure had more family members in their social network. The team also looked at genetic variations at the ACE gene, which stands for angiotensin I converting enzyme gene. Changes in the ACE gene are a powerful predictor of high blood pressure. Previous studies of the ACE gene that the team conducted showed that a novel measure of vicarious racial discrimination is associated with high blood pressure.

This new study recently published in PLOS One continues the work of examining the effects racial disparity have on the health of African Americans, specifically hypertension.

Mulligan noted the significance of family networks that contain many family members. “Phrased another way, lack of diversity of relationships in your network is associated with higher blood pressure,” Mulligan said. “Since African Americans are known to have more family members in their networks than European Americans, this result might help explain some of the racial disparities we see with hypertension and related cardiovascular diseases.”

If you ever feel that your family is making your blood boil, it just might be true.

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