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Conditions That Disproportionately Affect African Americans (And How You Can Help)


Black History Month is about coming to terms with the past and moving our country closer to racial equity – but you can’t have equity without health. Everyone deserves the chance to grow up healthy in the United States and abroad, but African American are much more likely to develop a range of chronic conditions compared to their white counterparts.

The reasons behind these trends are complex and diverse, but we all can have a role to play in reducing these health disparities by making sure African Americans have access to quality healthcare and the tools they need to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Find out which conditions are more likely to affect African Americans and how you can be a part of the solution.

Health Disparities in the African American Community

According to the CDC, heart disease, cancer, and stroke are the leading causes of death for African Americans. In addition, COVID-19 continues to kill a higher proportion of black Americans than white.

  • Heart Disease and Stroke

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for all Americans, regardless of race, age, or gender. However, nearly half of all African American adults have some form of cardiovascular disease. The CDC says that non-Hispanic black Americans were more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islander Americans to die of heart disease between 1999 and 2017.

High blood pressure and obesity are key risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Non-Hispanic blacks continue to have higher rates of hypertension and obesity than any other racial/ethnic group. About 2 out of every 5 African American adults have high blood pressure, and fewer than half of them have it under control.

  • Cancer

Cancer continues to be the second leading cause of death among African Americans. Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with and die from cancer than men of other ethnicities. As for black women, they are more likely to die from cancer, even though white women are more likely to be diagnosed with it.

For example, black women currently have the highest mortality rate when it comes to breast cancer compared to all other racial groups. In fact, they are 40% more likely to die from the disease than their white counterparts. The reasons are varied, but experts say black women tend to develop more aggressive forms of cancer. They are also more likely to lack the economic and social means to secure treatment. Increased early detection and consistent access to care for black women would help do away with these disparities.

Black men are far more susceptible to prostate cancer than men from other ethnicities. The disease tends to start when they are younger and develops more aggressively, but experts aren’t sure why. Again, increased early detection and promoting prostate screenings would help more black men recognize the problem before it becomes life-threatening.

  • Lifestyle Factors

Obesity, poor nutrition, and a lack of physical activity all increase the risk of disease. We know that African Americans are nearly 1.5 times as likely to suffer from obesity compared to their white counterparts. Studies also suggest that black Americans eat fewer vegetables than non-Hispanic whites, which limits their access to vital nutrients.

More than half (56%) of African American adults 18 years of age and older do not meet the aerobic component of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines, which states that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity a week to lead a healthy lifestyle.

According to the latest statistics, African Americans are also more likely to smoke than Hispanics, non-Hispanic whites, and Asian Americans.

How You Can Help

As a nurse or healthcare provider, you have a responsibility to deliver the best possible care to your patients, which means correcting these health disparities along the way.

The first step is to recognize the problem using the resources listed above. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s there. Learn more about the various conditions and lifestyle factors that contribute to these disparities among African Americans.

Help your patients achieve a healthy lifestyle. Studies show nurses are the most trusted healthcare workers, so there’s a good chance your patients will listen to what you have to say. Talk to black Americans about their risk of disease, the importance of early screenings and preventive procedures, and other factors that will reduce their risk.

The U.S. population is becoming increasingly diverse. Yet, most nurses indicate that they do not have the necessary preparation and, therefore, are not practice-ready to meet the needs of patients from diverse backgrounds. Providers, facilities, and institutions need to better prepare their workers for the reality of caring for diverse patients, including those from different backgrounds or those with different belief systems.

Nurses also need to be on the lookout for implicit bias, which can work against your patients. You or your colleagues may recommend treatment or follow-up care solely based on a person’s appearance or background, but this is not acceptable. In fact, patients of color may be even more in need of preventative or follow-up care than white patients. Experts recommend using a translator if the person doesn’t speak English. Patients with low educational attainment may need additional guidance when navigating the healthcare system and their risk of disease.

According to “The Role of Nurses in Eliminating Health Disparities and Achieving Health Equity”, even patients with high educational attainment who are diagnosed with a new illness need nurses to explain the illness, potential etiology, and treatment options. They also recommend encouraging your patients to speak up in clinical settings, so they feel more comfortable asking questions. Sending patients home with personalized notes and instructions can also help improve health literacy.

Use these tips to strive for racial equity in the healthcare industry. 

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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