African-American men raised in single-parent households in Washington, D.C., had higher blood pressure as adults than men raised by two parents, according to a study in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.

The study is the first to link childhood family living arrangements to adult blood pressure in African- American men, who have higher rates of high blood pressure than men in other ethnic groups.

“If the childhood environment’s influence on blood pressure is confirmed, it suggests that policies and programs designed to create and maintain family stability in childhood could have a long-lasting impact on the risk of hypertension,” researchers said.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health examined data on 515 men participating in a long-term Howard University Family Study. After adjusting for adult factors associated with blood pressure — age, exercise, smoking, body weight and medical history — they found:

  • Men who lived with both parents during one or more years of their childhoods had 4.4 mm Hg lower systolic (top number) blood pressure than those raised entirely in single-parent homes.
  • Living at least part of childhood with both parents was associated with improved pulse pressure (the change in blood pressure when the heart contracts) and the average blood pressure throughout a heartbeat cycle (average arterial pressure).
  • Men who spent one to 12 years of their childhood with both parents had an average 6.5 mm Hg lower systolic blood pressure and a 46 percent lower chance of being diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Researchers suggested three key explanations for their study results:

  • African-American children who live with their mothers alone are three times more likely to be poor. Those who live with fathers or a non-parent are twice as likely to be poor.
  • Compared to those who are raised by their two biological parents, other children are significantly less likely to find and maintain steady employment as young adults.
  • A critical period during childhood (1-12 years) and a potential mechanism through which the early life socio-familial factor operates may influence adult blood pressure.

“Living with both parents in early life may identify a critical period in human development where a nurturing socio-familial environment can have profound, long-lasting influences on blood pressure,” the authors said.