Barbers take blood pressure readings to help black men improve their heart health

Churches, barbershops and beauty salons have long been used to reach people with limited access to doctors, to promote cancer screenings and other health-related events.

So local researchers wanted to try the same innovative approach to help black men trying to lower their blood pressure.

Ronald Victor, a cardiologist with Cedars-Sinai thought the power of familiar faces and a trusted place, such as a barbershop, would be effective.

"On average, the men in our study get their hair cut every two weeks by the same barber and do so for over a decade," Victor said. "I think I'm a pretty nice doctor and have loyal patients, but nothing like that."

Marc Sims has been seeing his barber once a week, for several years.

The 43-year-old said those visits have helped him do more than trim his hair. They've also helped him lower his blood pressure.

Sims said he didn't realize the dangers of high blood pressure before participating in the program.

"I didn't know it was a silent killer like it is," he said.

He took part in the study that incorporated pharmacists and worked with 52 barbershops in Southern California to test and treat about 300 men.

At the start of the study, their "top" blood pressure number averaged 154. After six months, it fell by 27 points.

"For a high blood pressure trial of any kind this is a very large effect," Victor said.

Based on those results, they're now planning on expanding the project to other cities.

"A lot of the men in the study were working two jobs to make ends meet," said Victor. "For a lot of the men it would be impractical to say 'well I'll come see the doctor three weeks from Wednesday at 3 o' clock in the afternoon.'"

Eric Muhammad owns A New You Barber and Beauty Salon and said participating in the program is easy.

"It takes all of maybe three to five minutes to take the blood pressure reading so after I finished with my client, I would strap the blood pressure cuff on them and give them their blood pressure reading," he said.

Only half of Americans with high blood pressure have it under control, and many don't even know if they have the condition.

In fact, Sims says he didn't known he had it until his barber convinced him to get it checked. A pharmacist told him that at 175 over 125 he was a risk for having a stroke.

"When I was twisting his arm to join the program, because he didn't want to do it in the first place, I did remind him of his son. Sometimes it takes that extra kick in the butt," Muhammad said.

Now that Sims has lowered his pressure to 125 over 85, he takes his health more seriously, and he says he feels as good on the inside as he does on the outside.

"My barber took my blood pressure every week, and it constantly went down." he said. "This program saved my life."

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