Background: Ethnic disparities in cardiovascular morbidity and mortality are widely documented in the literature. Recently, research has shown that decreased parasympathetic cardiac modulation is associated with the established and emerging risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and stroke. In consideration of the disproportionate CVD risk and disease profile of African Americans (AAs), it is plausible that decreased cardiac parasympathetic functioning may partially explain these disparities. In the present systematic review and meta-analysis, we assess the available evidence for a reliable ethnic difference in tonic vagally mediated heart rate variability (HRV), an indicator of parasympathetic cardiac modulation.
Methods: A systematic literature search was conducted yielding studies comparing tonic HRV in AAs and European Americans. Adjusted standardized effect sizes (Hedges g) were calculated using a mixed-effects model, with restricted maximum likelihood estimation for 17 studies containing appropriate measures of vagally mediated HRV.
Results: Meta-analysis results suggest that AAs have greater HRV than do European Americans (Hedges g = 0.93, 95% confidence interval = 0.25-1.62), even after consideration of several covariates including health status, medication use, and subgroup stratification by sex and age.
Conclusions: These findings suggest that decreased vagally mediated HRV is not likely to account for the persistent health disparities experienced by AAs with respect to CVD risk and burden. These disparities underscore the need for continued research addressing socioethnic cardiovascular differences and the biobehavioral mechanisms involved.