The percentage of people who reported having hypertension (high blood pressure) in the U.S. rose from 26 percent to a little over 28 percent over four years, say federal health officials.
That's a rise of about 10 percent, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who called the jump "small but significant" in a new report that measured self-reported high blood pressure rates between 2005 and 2009.
The problem of high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, among other conditions, is particularly pronounced in South Los Angeles. Dr. Cesar Barba, the interim medical director for UMMA Community Clinic, said he and staff tend to more than 1,200 hypertension patients. Those cases account for more than 1 in 5 of their patient diagnoses.
"It's the number-one diagnosis that we see of chronic disease in our clinic," he said.
Diet and socioeconomic status are the two main reasons, he said.
Why blood pressure is high in South L.A.
Excessive salt intake, especially if it's coupled with an absence of fruit and vegetable consumption, increases a person's risk of developing hypertension, Barba said, and there's no shortage of salty foods in South L.A.
"Just around the neighborhood, within a couple of blocks from our clinic, there's no access to any healthy foods," he said. "Yet we have at least 10 fast-food places that our patients can access."
Low socioeconomic status makes the problem worse, he added.
"Take a mom who's a single parent," said Barba. "She's working one to two jobs and has very little time to cook a healthy meal, so the next easiest thing is to go to McDonald's and get a couple of cheeseburgers for a couple bucks. It's fast, it's inexpensive and it gets your family fed."
Healthy food, on the other hand, doesn't tend to run cheap, especially compared to a value menu. Barba said health providers tell their patients to live a healthier lifestyle all the time, but noted that folks on the southside can legitimately counter those orders with two questions: Where can I go? And how can I afford it?
Trouble in the future
California actually saw its high blood pressure rates drop about 2 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to the CDC. With a little more than 1 in 4 of its residents claiming they had the condition – the national rate is 1 in 3 – the Golden State did relatively well compared to other states, where rates of self-reported hypertension ranged from about 21 percent of a state's population to about 36 percent.
The CDC also found that during that same timeframe, the number of people on antihypertensive medication regimens also increased slightly, from 61.1 percent to 62.6 percent. Health providers will generally tell patients with high blood pressure to adjust their diet and exercise first; failing that, they'll move them onto some sort of medication.
But Barba said the most disturbing trend is the rise in the number of children he and his fellow providers have seen with the condition.
"That's what worries us the most," he said. "Obviously it's not only high blood pressure; we have this obesity epidemic that contributes to that issue."
All of which indicates there's trouble on the horizon. Barba called the difference between obesity rates 20 years ago and today "staggering."
"If we don't do something to change the way we handle our health in this country, then we are in trouble," he said. "Because not only do we have to change the community's access to health care and access to healthy foods, but we have to educate our patient population a lot better.
"If we don't," he continued, "the reason we will be in trouble is because high blood pressure can lead to kidney disease, heart disease and all those are ramifications that bring higher health care costs."
Late last year, a CDC report noted that more than 14 million Americans don't know they have hypertension.