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Health & Fitness: Is Being Black in America Dangerous to Your Health?

Contributing Writer: Jamistew

RN & Master of Public Health Studies Graduate Student

If your name is Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, or Ezell Ford, then the obvious answer to this question is yes. The list could go on, but even if you’re fortunate enough not to be shot in cold blood in the street, can being Black in America have a negative effect on your overall health and well-being? According the numbers, the answer is also a resounding “Yes”.

To start, black people living in America have significantly different health outcomes when compared to other racial groups in the nation. We suffer disproportionately from a myriad of health conditions ranging from diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, to cancer.

There are numerous factors that come into play when considering health outcomes. Unhealthy behaviors like smoking, substance abuse, poor dietary habits, occupational stress, and reduced access to quality health care are all factors that play a critical role in determining the health of a group of people – and Black people in America are leading the races in almost all categories. Consequently, what is the common denominator that makes us so vulnerable? You guessed it…Racism.

Is the government aware of this? Absolutely. No matter how much we are told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, the recognition of health inequalities in the nation is a hot topic. Reducing racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare has been listed as one of the nation’s top goals for many years; but a goal on paper doesn’t always equate to effective health programs.

Every 10 years the Department of Health and Human Services publishes its national goals for the next 10 years, and the goals for 2020 are no closer to being met than they were in 2010.

I’ll let the statistics speak for themselves…

  • Twice as many African American infants die compared to the national average due to preterm birth weight and complications in pregnancy - and the rate of preterm birth among African Americans is higher than any other ethnic group in the nation.

  • Cancer mortality rate among African Americans is 25% higher than Whites from all types of cancer. The rate is 50% higher for Black men than for White men.

  • Diabetes affects African Americans 70% more than Whites. Even with adequate medical insurance, there is a gap between Blacks and Whites, and we are more likely to be hospitalized as a result of this disease.

  • African Americans experience more risk factors for heart disease including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity. We suffer more from all these risk factors than any other racial group.

  • African Americans account for almost 50% of new cases of HIV/AIDS, yet we only make up approximately 13% of the total population with most new cases being Black women. 1/3 of us have never been tested.

The experience of chronic racism has a direct influence on the development and treatment (or lack thereof) when it comes to these diseases. Racism, stress, perceptions of lack of control, and poor coping mechanisms cause a chain reaction of harmful biological processes that eventually lead to poor health outcomes.

Racism and discrimination is manifested in discrepancies in access to health care, negative health provider attitudes (Tuskegee experiment anyone?), social inequalities, and residential segregation. Interestingly, even in the presence of equal socioeconomic status among Blacks and Whites, there is still a higher risk of disease and premature death among African Americans, and despite the somewhat improved condition of our lives, the legacy of poor health doesn’t seem to go away. As a result, we lack proper prenatal care, inadequate health screenings and disease detection, lack of follow up, and lack of access to proper treatment.

The harmful effect of chronic racism sets in motion a number of physiological responses we may not even be aware of that results in increased stress hormones, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, suppressed immune system response, and a premature wearing down of the body leading to a greater tendency to develop disease. Racism related stress also has a direct effect on mental health as experiencing unfair treatment and social disadvantage can worsen stress and any present mental health conditions.

Recent studies have shown that college educated African American women consistently have high rates of preterm birth due to high levels of stress hormone in the placenta, putting the mother at further risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes later in life. Living in residential segregated neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and lack of economic opportunities increases chances of exposure to stressful environments along with fewer resources which all relate to poor health status. This invariably is linked to social problems, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, crime, violence, unemployment, anxiety, lack of healthy food, etc. resulting in higher rates of death and disease.

The bottom line is that repeated experiences with racism results in stress, higher blood pressure, and eventual development of disease. So is there anything we can do?

First, we can start by strengthening ourselves. Become more physically active and institute a healthy lifestyle with proper diet and exercise. Find ways to eat healthy on a budget and try to incorporate moderate exercise a few times a week.

Second, let’s start strengthening our communities. Get involved in community organizations. Support local leaders, clubs, educational institutions, and participate in developing support networks to help bring health promoting organizations and activities to where you work and live.

It is time to get involved. We can’t wait for the government to implement programs to fix our health issues. It must begin with us. We are all we got.

Peace and health family


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