The qualifications these researchers bring to a new study at Charles R. Drew University cannot be measured solely by their degrees and awards. Consider too all they have lost.
Each man lost his mother to hypertension.
"I knew she went to the doctor," Dr. Keith Norris said of his mother, who died at 52. "I knew she was on some medicine. I didn't know how severe it was. So when she ended up dying from a stroke, it hit me: Here I am a physician and I don't really have the relationship and understanding of this health issue."
Now, Norris is one of three key players in a Drew study examining and comparing the effect of transcendental meditation with that of health education on African Americans suffering from heart disease and diabetes. In short, researchers want to see whether meditation can improve health as well as, or better than, classes on diet and exercise.
As researchers, they are guided by the protocols of science. But their relationship with these ailments is also personal.
African Americans are at greater risk for high blood pressure than any other race or ethnic group in the nation and tend to develop hypertension at an earlier age. The greater severity and early onset lead to an 80% higher stroke mortality rate than among the general U.S. population, a 50% higher heart disease mortality rate and a 320% greater rate of hypertension-related end-stage kidney disease, according to a National Institutes of Health report published in 1997.
Norris and his colleagues believe that such disparities do not have to exist, and a key to improved health may lie in the patients' own hands.
The idea is simple: Stress is believed to be a major culprit in such ailments as hypertension and heart disease. Meditation lessens stress and could allow the body to better heal itself. If the hypothesis is correct, the study could one day have implications for all who suffer from such maladies as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.
"Being able to deal with stress and also being able to affect one's perspective on society in general should help improve high blood pressure and really all medical conditions," said Norris, the study's co-investigator. "Our body has a very powerful ability to heal itself."
Seeking Better Health for African Americans
Norris and his colleagues--Hector F. Myers and Chinelo Haney--are motivated not only by scientific inquiry, but by the possibility that they can dramatically improve the health of African Americans.
"I come to it from the standpoint of trying to understand what is it as a people we struggle with and as a psychologist how do I help us," said Myers, UCLA professor of psychiatry and director of the Biobehavioral Research Center at Drew, and principal investigator of the study. "How do I contribute to possible interventions to address those needs?"
The factors that contribute to stress among African Americans range from unemployment and poverty to racism. Stress is among several factors that contribute to heart disease and hypertension, along with obesity, lack of exercise and smoking.
For all its danger, hypertension has become known as the silent killer because it often produces no symptoms.
"The African American community in this society has, in general, pressing, acute issues to deal with, and so [dealing with] a disease that's asymptomatic is easy to put off," Norris said.
Although hypertension can be treated, the medication often produces side effects, said Norris, which discourages some patients from taking their prescription drugs.
When he entered Howard University Medical School at the age of 19, Norris was not sure what his specialty would be. He was drawn to the study of kidney disorders.
Then, while he was still in training, his middle-aged parents died a year and a half apart. His mother was a schoolteacher. His father, a veterinarian, died of an aneurysm, probably brought on by hypertension.
Now a kidney specialist, Norris sees patient after patient with hypertension. For many years high blood pressure was the leading cause of kidney failure among African Americans. Although diabetes is now the leading cause, Norris said, the vast majority of people with diabetes also have hypertension.
As he advises patients and their families about the illness, Norris draws upon his personal experience.
Since the 1970s, Myers has been involved in hypertension research aimed at demonstrating the relationship between blood pressure and stress.
"Being upset and being angry and frustrated is hard on the cardiovascular system," Myers said.
This is the kind of work that he has wanted to do since he was a student. Born in Panama, Myers had seen in his family the destructive results of hypertension and heart disease.
"Both my maternal grandmother and my mom died of heart disease," he said. "My mom died relatively young. She was in her 30s."
Lessons From Classroom and Community