PURPOSE: Lay beliefs about illness are a potential barrier to improving the control of hypertension. We investigated the extent to which lay beliefs about hypertension diverge from current medical understanding. METHODS: We conducted street intercept interviews and focus group discussions in six predominantly African-American census tracts in the southern sector of Dallas County, Texas. Sixty subjects, aged 18 to 67 years, were stopped along popular thoroughfares and administered a brief survey. Additionally, 107 participants were interviewed in 12 homogeneous focus groups, balanced by sex and age (18 to 74 years). Participants were asked about the meaning, causes, consequences, and treatment of high blood pressure. RESULTS: The street intercept data indicated that 35% (n = 21) of respondents related high blood pressure to eating pork or other foods that makes the blood travel too fast to the head, and only 15% (n = 9) related hypertension to an elevated pressure in blood vessels. The focus group data indicated that hypertension was causally linked to eating pork in 8 of the 12 groups; was perceived as a symptomatic illness in all 12 groups; and was considered treatable with vitamins, garlic, and other herbs in 11 groups, with prescription medications in 10 groups and with lifestyle modifications such as weight loss in 8 groups. Hypertension was mentioned as a leading cause of death among African Americans in none of the 4 focus groups of 18-year-old to 29-year-old participants, in 2 of the 4 focus groups of 30-year-old to 49-year-old participants, and in 3 of the 4 focus groups of 50-year-old to 74-year-old participants. CONCLUSIONS: In a low- to middle-income urban African-American community, the predominant beliefs about hypertension diverged sharply from current medical understanding. Lack of appreciation of these lay beliefs by providers may contribute to noncompliance and poor rates of hypertension control.
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