Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently conducted a study to explore racial disparities in incidences of hypertension. They were surprised to learn southern-style diets may be the main reason African-Americans were more likely to suffer from hypertension, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, and heart attack. The results of the study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

African-Americans tend to die at younger ages than whites, with a life expectancy about 3.5 to 4 years less. African-Americans who die younger mostly die from heart disease caused by high blood pressure. It has been found that roughly 75 percent of black men and women develop high blood pressure by their mid-50s. Only about 55 percent of white men and 40 percent of white women of the same age develop the condition.

The researchers set out to find why this disparity exists. Lead author George Howard, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in a statement, “Preventing hypertension is a critical piece of reducing health disparities in cardiovascular disease. This work identifies factors contributing to the development of high blood pressure and how they differ between African-Americans and white Americans.”

For the study, the researchers examined nearly 7,000 older adults over the age of 45 living across the US and followed them for more than nine years. During that period, their cholesterol was tracked, along with their blood pressure and body mass index. The participants also answered questions about their health and completed questionnaires measuring their diets. Over the course of the study, 46 percent of black participants and 33 percent of white participants developed hypertension.

After all of the data had been compiled and analyzed, the researchers found that a Southern-style diet was more strongly correlated with hypertension than any other factor the researchers measured. A Southern-style diet is high in fried foods and foods with lots of fat, salt and sugar, while low in foods considered healthy, like vegetables and whole grains. The Southern-style diet accounted for 51.6 percent of excess risk for high blood pressure in black men and 29.2 percent in black women.

The good news is that dietary changes could have a considerable effect this outcome. Howard said, “This study points to lifestyle changes that can be made to reduce the black-white difference in hypertension, which will in turn reduce the racial disparities in cardiovascular disease.”