Brian Kennedy fell in love with music at a young age. In fact, just after high school he moved from Kansas City, Mo. to Los Angeles to pursue work in the Entertainment Capital of the World.

He was doing fine in racking up gigs, sitting in recording sessions, writing lyrics, and composing music charts all while keeping his eye on his ultimate goal of pop stardom. Kennedy would work with some of the industry’s most well-known artists in producing chart-topping hits and earning accolades, including Grammy and ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) awards.

Along the way, however, Kennedy received a life-changing medical diagnosis: Renal kidney failure brought on by years of uncontrolled high blood pressure. Up to that point he had no idea his body was failing him, and at age 26 he was placed on a kidney transplant list.

“The news really tore me up,” Kennedy said. “My dream of making it in the music business has come true, but here I am with the doctor and he’s telling me my life is about to change. I knew about my family’s history of high blood pressure, but I didn’t think it could happen to me, especially at a young age.”

Kennedy had recurring migraine-like headaches in the two years leading up to his diagnosis, but, otherwise, he felt fine. Like so many African-Americans, though, Kennedy had no idea that an unknown, stealth attacker was closing in on his life. 

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), high blood pressure (i.e. hypertension) is a largely symptomless “silent killer.” Over time and left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to life-threatening problems, including heart attack, stroke and kidney failure. 

Evidence shows high blood pressure does not cause headaches until a person is in hypertensive crisis when blood pressure is 180/120 mm Hg or higher. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Also, high blood pressure can contribute to some types of early on-set dementia, heart attack and, in Kennedy’s case, liver disease.

In May 2017, Kennedy received a new kidney from his brother, Kevin. The life-changing moment would encourage Kennedy to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his kidney transplant with a virtual music celebration to raise awareness of the health malady. “Heartbeats” takes place 6 p.m. May 18 via zoom. Contact Providence or the AHA websites for registration details.

Nearly half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, but the burden of disease is disproportionately higher in Black people for several reasons, including historical and systemic discrimination. Additionally, high blood pressure develops earlier in life and is usually more severe within the African-American community.

High blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease and some other health concerns. High blood pressure shortens Black lives—particularly those of Black men—more than any other racial group. 

A 2019 study published in the journal of the AHA found that, of its participants, 75.5 percent of Black men and a near-equal amount of Black women developed hypertension by the age of 55. This compares with a reported 54.5 percent of White men and 40 percent of White women.

Further, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the overall prevalence of high blood pressure is 54 percent among non-Hispanic Black adults, compared to 46 percent in non-Hispanic White adults, 39 percent in non-Hispanic Asian-Pacific Islander adults, and 36 percent in Hispanic adults.

Lifestyle factors, such as an unhealthy diet, smoking and physical inactivity, increase the risk of high blood pressure. The AHA suggests that societal barriers created by structural racism contribute significantly to the disproportionate burden of cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure.

Among the health constraints within the Black community are medical racism (doctors often do not listen to the health concerns of Black people, thereby causing a delay in treatment); an historic salty/fatty diet; food deserts; resistant hypertension (Black people are reportedly more likely to have this condition which occurs when blood pressure does not drop in response to medication), and what is called “earlier” hypertension in which African-Americans tend to develop high blood pressure earlier in life than people in other racial groups.

Locally, Providence and the AHA are  working to reduce uncontrolled high blood pressure among Black people and other communities of color in Los Angeles County. The Health Equity Hypertension Project, which aims to reach 65,000 people in Los Angeles County, enables community organizations, faith-based groups, and workplace settings to teach its members how to self-monitor and manage their blood pressure and how to seek medical care. 

The effort is complemented by weekly online health lessons where people learn simple steps to keep their blood pressure healthy and prevent cardiovascular disease.

“Under our multi-state, $50M Health Equity Initiative, Providence is committed to achieving health equity in Southern California by addressing health disparities among communities that have been marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion, or socioeconomic status,” said Denise Colomé, health equity program director for Providence Southern California.

“We are pleased to collaborate with the American Heart Association and local community and faith-based organizations on efforts to eliminate uncontrolled high blood pressure as a health disparity in Los Angeles.”

Kennedy will share more about his story and the music that helped him through his illness and recovery in “HeartBeats,” which takes place on May 18 at 6 p.m. via Zoom. Register to join at https://tinyurl.com/yckwdz29.

Kennedy is grateful for his new lease on life and is making every effort to stay healthy, making sure to get enough sleep, drink water, move more regularly and eat low-sodium, healthy meals.

“Good health is a superpower,” Kennedy noted. “We need to be careful how we treat ourselves. In the most selfless selfish way, put yourself first because if you can be a better person for yourself, you can be a better person for the people around you.”

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