Pulse of Paradise

UH Hilo professor Dan Brown is using grant money to learn about why Asians

January, 2004

High anxiety isn’t usually associated with Island living. However, 22 percent of Hawaii’s populations of Japanese ancestry and Hawaiian ancestry have high blood pressure. Fourteen percent of Hawaii’s Filipino population also has hypertension. The rates of Japanese and Hawaiians are much higher than the 12 percent of Caucasians in Hawaii who suffer from this affliction, the primary cause of strokes, which result in 600 Hawaii deaths annually.

Dan Brown, a medical anthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, hopes to unravel this mysterious phenomenon with his research. Another of his key research topics is examining how variations in blood pressure over the course of the day might predict the likelihood of strokes. “It’s particularly interesting. It seems Asian-Americans do not reduce their blood pressure as much during sleep,” says Brown, who is leading the steady growth of national-caliber research at the University of Hawaii’s other four-year campus.

To gather his data, Brown gets subjects to wear a device that records their blood pressure throughout the day. Subjects also keep diaries recording their moods. Some donate urine samples several times each day to benchmark levels of stress-induced chemicals they may produce. “We’re hoping to see how some of these relate to stroke prevalence and maybe we can help make some treatment and prevention recommendations down the road,” says Brown, who has tested thousands of teachers and nurses using this system. Those groups were convenient because they contained large numbers of specific ethnic groups – Japanese for teachers and Filipinos for nurses. Brown has also tested Native Hawaiians and Caucasians and is currently trying to test hotel workers around the Islands.

The $300,000 in annual funding for Brown’s research grant, from 2000 to 2004, comes from the National Institutes of Health’s Minority Biomedical Research Support program. UH Hilo has gained $4.6 million of dollars in funding over the past eight years for everything from X-ray crystallography to evolutionary genetics and psychology as part of this wide-ranging national program designed help either minority researchers and to further research in minority communities.

Today Brown’s research is considered one of the premier epidemiological and behavioral investigations into hypertension, which strikes one in four Americans, according to the American Heart Association. While Brown hesitates to make predictions, his studies could one day help physicians create more targeted treatment regimes for different ethnicities, a valuable tool that is lacking in today’s medical arsenal.

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Alex Salkever