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A new study suggests that African-Americans can lower their blood pressure by moving to more racially-mixed neighborhoods. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has more on this research published today in JAMA Internal Medicine.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: African-Americans are more likely than whites to get high blood pressure, which is a big time cause of heart attacks and strokes, so Kiarri Kershaw of Northwestern University decided to test a theory.
KIARRI KERSHAW: Does moving from a highly segregated neighborhood to a less segregated neighborhood result in a lowering of your blood pressure? That was the main interesting, exciting question that we wanted to answer.
STEIN: So Kershaw's team followed more than 2,000 African-Americans living in Birmingham, Chicago, Minneapolis and Oakland starting in 1985, when they were 18 to 30 years old, to see what happened to those who moved to more integrated places.
KERSHAW: We saw that their blood pressures dropped.
STEIN: A lot. Their systolic blood pressure, the first number you get when you go to the doctor, fell by 1 to 5 points.
KERSHAW: I think it's pretty powerful in the sense that their reasons for their moves were not necessarily for their health, but it has these other added benefits.
STEIN: Now, the drop in blood pressure may sound small, but Kershaw says it's easily enough to translate into thousands of fewer heart attacks and strokes. The study couldn't pinpoint why getting away from segregation may help someone's blood pressure, but Kershaw has some ideas.
KERSHAW: There's a decent-sized body of evidence relating stress to blood pressure, and that's one pathway that we hypothesized that segregation influences health through exposure to violence, things like that that could increase your stress level and then potentially influence blood pressure.
STEIN: And Kershaw thinks it's probably not just being exposed to less violence in their new, more racially-diverse neighborhoods.
KERSHAW: It's possible that they were exposed to neighborhoods with more economic investment and prospects for their children, access to better schools. These moves could result in improvements in their housing values which could also improve their outlook.
STEIN: And they could have easier access the things that help them live healthier lives like sidewalks, parks, gyms, grocery stores with fresh produce or pharmacies to buy blood pressure drugs.
KERSHAW: The take-home message is that policies that can allow people who are living in segregated neighborhoods to move has some spillover effects that influences health like blood pressure.
STEIN: Other experts agree. David Goff is a heart disease expert at the National Institutes of Health.
DAVID GOFF: The big message here is that this study shines a light on one of the root causes of heart disease and stroke in our country. This tells us that there's something going on there that we need to understand better and we need to address if we hope to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke and especially reduce that risk in the populations with the highest risk for heart disease and stroke.
STEIN: Maybe segregated places could be improved to reduce blood pressure by doing things like building more parks and better grocery stores, But Ashish Jha of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health says the biggest thing that could be done would be to eliminate segregation.
ASHISH JHA: This study is really important because it helps us really feel much more confident that there is something about segregation itself that's leading to worse health outcomes. And this study says that we really do have to tackle segregation if we're going to really improve the health of minorities in America.
STEIN: Rob Stein, NPR News.
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