African Americans are a minority race in the U.S., but the population is growing. Any race or ethnic group living in the U.S. has its own specific health concerns as well as those that affect everyone. The differences in health issues stem from differences in environments, genetics, cultural factors, and access to health care, prevention, and education.
For African Americans, some of the major health concerns include violence, obesity and its associated health risks, infections like HIV, access to health care, and genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia. By understanding what health concerns affect you more than other populations, you can learn what steps you need to take to prevent illness or to treat any illnesses or other health issues that you may develop.
Leading Causes of Death
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collect the top causes of death for Americans in general, but also by race, gender, and age. These lists can help people understand what kinds of health issues present the greatest risks and can help people to make real changes to improve their health. The leading causes of death among African Americans are similar to those for all Americans, with a few exceptions.
Heart disease, cancer, and unintentional injuries are the top three causes of death, while stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, and chronic lower respiratory diseases are in the top ten for both groups. African Americans, though, are more likely than the rest of the population to die from homicide or HIV. One cause of death that is in the top ten for the American population as a whole, but that is missing from the leading causes for African American deaths is suicide.
African Americans have a two times greater risk of developing diabetes than white Americans. Exactly why this is the case is not fully understood. There are higher rates of obesity among both male and female African Americans, and obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes. Thirty-eight percent of African American men and 57 percent of women are obese, as compared to 34 and 36 percent of white men and women in the U.S. There may be other factors too, such as genetics that predispose more African Americans to diabetes.
Diabetes is a serious chronic illness, but one that can be controlled and managed. It is important for anyone at risk for this disease to understand the consequences of developing it and not controlling it: kidney failure, vision loss, and amputated limbs, just to name a few. With treatment and lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, a healthy diet, and regular exercise, type 2 diabetes can be managed and even reversed.
High Blood Pressure
Forty-one percent of African American men and 45 percent of women have high blood pressure, statistics that are significantly higher than for the white population in America. As with diabetes, obesity may play a role, but genetics may as well. Diabetes and kidney disease can also cause high blood pressure. Often, there is no known cause that can be pinpointed for high blood pressure. Other factors that put someone at risk for high blood pressure are being older and having a family history.
Like diabetes, high blood pressure is a chronic illness. There is no cure for it but by controlling risk factors, using medications, and making lifestyle changes, it can be managed successfully. Risk factors that anyone can control include being overweight or obese, eating a poor diet with too much salt, drinking alcohol excessively, not being physically active, and smoking. By changing these things that can be controlled, blood pressure can be managed better, although some people still need medications.
With higher rates of obesity and high blood pressure, and with heart disease as the leading cause of death, it is no surprise that cardiovascular disease is an important health concern for African Americans. Cardiovascular disease refers to heart diseases, diseases of the blood vessels, and strokes. Examples include heart arrhythmia, heart attack, strokes, and congestive heart failure. Obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure are all risk factors for these diseases and all of them can be fatal if not controlled or treated. Controlling the diseases and factors that can lead to cardiovascular disease is important for prevention for all Americans, but the risk is higher for African Americans.
Rates of smoking in African American men and women are lower than for white men and women, and yet they suffer from more lung diseases. The American Lung Association has reported that African Americans have the highest rate of asthma of any racial group in the U.S. They are also more likely to have sarcoidosis and to die from it. This is a disease that is characterized by scarring in the lungs. African American children are more likely to have sleep apnea and to die from sudden infant death syndrome than white children. The risk of lung cancer is 50 percent higher in African American men than white men.
One potential reason for this disparity in lung diseases is the influence of environmental factors. More African Americans live in cities that have air pollution levels higher than those set by federal standards. They are also more likely to live near transportation corridors, factories, and toxic waste sites. There are also likely to be genetic factors that make African Americans more susceptible to lung disease as well as disparities in health care.
Sickle Cell Anemia
One in 12 African Americans has the gene that causes sickle cell anemia. To actually have the disease, a person must have two copies of the gene, one from each parent. This is a gene that is most common in people whose ancestors came from Africa. About 100,000 Americans have the disease, including one out of 365 African Americans.
Sickle cell disease results in the production of red blood cells that are shaped abnormally. Instead of being shaped like round doughnuts, some of the blood cells in a person with this disease are shaped like sickles, or crescent moons. This is problematic because the shape can cause them to get stuck in blood vessels causing blockages. These abnormal cells also don’t last as long and are broken down more quickly than round red blood cells. This results in anemia—a lack of adequate oxygen carried by the blood to various parts of the body.
The symptoms of sickle cell anemia include symptoms of anemia: tiredness, fatigue, dizziness, feeling cold, irritability, headaches, and shortness of breath. There are also symptoms and complications associated with blocked blood vessels. These include pain and damage to organs. Sickle cell anemia is a lifelong disease and there is no cure for it. However, there are treatments that can help manage it.
Treatments have greatly improved over the last few decades. In the 1970s the life expectancy was only 14 years for someone diagnosed with the disease. Today it is between 40 and 60. The range is so wide because the disease affects people to different degrees. Some have severe symptoms, while for others they are only mild. There is hope that research into gene therapy may eventually provide a cure for the disease.
Homicide and Violence
Homicide is the fifth leading cause of death among African Americans. Statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Justice show that African Americans are more likely to be victims of violence than white Americans. For instance, in 2005 African Americans were 13 percent of the U.S. population, but were victims in 15 percent of all violent crimes that were not fatal. That same year, 50 percent of the victims of homicides were African Americans. Rates of violence have been declining for all racial groups in the U.S., but there is still a dangerous discrepancy.
There are serious health consequences of violence, both physical and mental. The consequences in homicide are obvious: death. However, in nonfatal homicides, victims may suffer physical injuries ranging from mild to severe. These injuries could be lifelong health problems. Violence victims also face significant risks for mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who witness violence are also at risk for being traumatized or for experiencing other mental health problems.
All Americans are at risk for developing cancer and it is a leading cause of death for all racial and ethnic groups in the country. However, African Americans have the shortest survival times of any racial group for a variety of types of cancer. The death rate for African Americans with cancer has been dropping, but they are still dying from cancer much more often than white Americans.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are a few reasons for the cancer survival disparity by race. More African Americans live in poverty and the risk of dying from cancer is positively correlated with lower socioeconomic status. People living in poverty are more likely to engage in behaviors that increase the risk of developing cancer. They also have less access to health care for education, prevention, and treatment.
HIV, which can lead to AIDS, is more common in African Americans. They make up about one-third of all Americans now living with HIV. Men are at a significantly greater risk of developing this infection. Over the last ten years the rate of HIV in African American women has dropped, but is still high compared to other racial groups. For African American gay and bisexual men, the rate has increased. Education, prevention, and awareness are crucial in slowing the spread of this disease. Regular testing and open communication between partners is also important.
African Americans are about 20 percent more likely than the general population of the U.S. to suffer from a major mental health condition like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Reasons for this may include the link to violence. African Americans are more likely to be victims of violence or to witness violence. They are also more likely to be homeless, a major risk factor for mental illness.
African Americans with mental health challenges may be less likely to get treatment than white Americans for cultural reasons. They are less likely to be willing to talk about mental health or to admit to needing help for a mental health condition. This may be especially problematic for young African American men. Suicide is on the rise in this age and racial group. Older African Americans are also at a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease than white Americans.
Access to Health Care
There are many factors that may contribute to health disparities like obesity or high blood pressure between African Americans and white Americans, but statistics clearly show that access to good health care is an important one. They receive less health care and of a lesser quality than white Americans in general. African Americans are less likely to have health insurance, are less likely to have ongoing care through a regular doctor, are less likely to be vaccinated against infections like the flu, and are less likely to receive timely, quality care when seeking medical care.
Tips for Healthy Living
Based on the facts about health issues that affect African Americans, there are several ways in which individuals can improve their own health. One of the most important things you can do is become aware of your health risks based on all kinds of factors, including race, gender, age, and family history. By understanding your risks, you can take steps to minimize them. For African Americans, there are many health risks associated with lifestyle factors and weight. Losing weight, eating a healthy diet, and being more physically active are important changes that anyone can make and that will have a positive impact on health.
Because lung diseases are so prevalent, it is important to avoid smoking at all costs or to quit smoking. To combat the poorer outcomes for having cancer, it is important to be screened for cancers you may be at risk for and to take steps to reduce your risk factors. Getting access to good health care is also important. Even without health insurance, health care is important. Free clinics, Medicaid, Medicare, and community groups are all potential sources of health care for those without private insurance.
As with any other American, African Americans can be put at risk for side effects and complications from being treated for illnesses. Certain medications carry serious risks, for example, drugs used to treat diabetes. These include Invokana, Januvia, Onglyza, and others. They can lower blood sugar, but they also put people at risk for pancreatic cancer and other serious complications. Because African Americans are at risk for cardiovascular disease, they may also be at risk for blood thinner medications. Drugs like Xarelto, for instance, may cause serious and even fatal bleeding.
Health concerns for African Americans are numerous. Some, like heart disease and diabetes, overlap with the general population, but some are unique to this racial group or are a bigger concern, like HIV, lung disease, or sickle cell anemia. With more health concerns to consider, members of this demographic group need good health care, but that too is an issue. While positive changes are happening to narrow many health disparities, African Americans are still more vulnerable to many health concerns than white Americans.
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