‘Slavery Hypothesis’ as Explanation for Blacks’ High Hypertension Rates Unfounded, Expert Says in Opinion Piece
The "dubious theory" that blacks' disproportionately high rate of hypertension "is an evolutionary byproduct of the slave trade" is "questionable at face value," Osagie Obasogie, director of the project on bioethics, law and society at the Center for Genetics and Society, writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece.
The theory -- known as the "slavery hypothesis" -- suggests that "slaves who survived the food and water deprivation, dysentery and vomiting endemic on [their] grueling voyage had a genetic predisposition to retaining sodium," Obasogie writes. This "is believed to have loaded the African-American gene pool with genes favoring salt retention, which in turn, generates high blood pressure," according to Obasogie.
"Few scientific theories have been so thoroughly discredited," Obasogie writes, pointing out that there is only one peer-reviewed report backing the theory and that the report has been "soundly refuted." Obasogie adds, "Although predisposition to salt retention may have advantaged some individual slaves, other factors -- such as new selective pressures in North America and mating with non-Africans -- would have increased genetic variability, not constricted today's African-American population to one common hypertension gene." In addition, the theory implies that contemporary West Africans would have similar rates of hypertension as blacks in the U.S., but that "has not been the case," Obasogie says.
"What's so pernicious about this 'bad gene' theory is that it attributes current health disparities to actions taken nearly four centuries ago, when the more relevant issue may very well be what is happening today," such as the effect of stress on blacks, Obasogie states. Obasogie adds, "Racial disparities in health are real. But a bit of caution should be exercised when playing the gene card to explain them." However, according to Obasogie, "This is not to say that genetic research has no value to minority health care."
Obasogie concludes that "it's regrettable that we continue to invest millions of research dollars ... looking for genes to explain racial disparities in health, when so many causes lie simply in how we treat one another" (Obasogie, Los Angeles Times, 5/17).