Though all humans share an underlying physiology, some diseases affect people differently and in greater number. Case in point? Black Americans are affected by diseases like diabetes, hypertension and various pulmonary conditions at rates that are 20 to 60% higher than white Americans. Cancer rates are also higher, as are death rates from cancer. And mortality rates for black infants are 2.3 times higher than for white infants.
Medical researchers aren’t sure whether these numbers represent genetic variations, socioeconomic factors or some combination. They do know, though, that major health issues affect black Americans disproportionately. And three of the biggest health threats to this population? Hypertension, diabetes and asthma.
Your blood pressure normally goes up during exercise or stress. With hypertension, your blood pressure is always high, even at rest. As a result, your blood can’t flow as freely. Your heart has to work harder to pump blood.
If left unmanaged, hypertension can permanently damage your blood vessels, heart, kidneys, brain and eyes. Chronic high blood pressure may even kill you.
Some people with extremely high blood pressure experience headaches, shortness of breath and irregular heartbeats. But most people with high blood pressure won’t have any symptoms. Doctors call high blood pressure “the silent killer” for this reason.
One study suggested that 75% of African Americans — that’s 3 out of 4 people, both men and women — would have high blood pressure by the age of 55. By contrast, 55% of white American men and 40% of white American women will be hypertensive by age 55. What’s more, black Americans develop hypertension earlier than white Americans. And the disease is often far more severe.
Some evidence suggests that the higher rate of hypertension among black people is based on genes. But the rate of hypertension among black populations in other countries correlates with the rate among white populations. Living in America may be more of a contributing factor. Many scientists believe that hypertension among black Americans is due to environmental factors, including social and economic issues that are unique to the African American experience.
If your parents or grandparents suffered from high blood pressure, let your doctor know. It tends to run in families. In any case, your doctor should check your blood pressure at each checkup. Tracking it over time establishes a pattern so you can tell if it rises. The difference between treated hypertension and untreated hypertension could be life or death.
In the last 30 years, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes among African Americans has gone up by 400%. Not only are black Americans 1.7 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than their white counterparts, but they’re also at far greater risks for complications — things like kidney failure, neuropathies that lead to amputations, adult blindness and even death.
Our bodies break down the foods we eat into a sugar called glucose, which circulates through the blood. It’s then transported into individual cells. This cellular transport system relies on insulin, a hormone that your pancreas secretes.
Diabetics either can’t make enough insulin or their cells aren’t able to use the insulin their bodies make effectively. The result is elevated glucose levels in the blood, which can damage blood vessels and organs. Symptoms of high glucose levels include:
- Frequent urination
- Sugar in your urine
- Headaches and vision changes
- Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- Sores that don’t heal
- Unexplained weight loss
Since the elevated glucose blood levels associated with type 2 diabetes can damage arteries, people with diabetes are also at risk for developing high blood pressure.
Many medical researchers believe obesity is driving the prevalence of type 2 diabetes among African Americans. Obesity may be linked to a range of environmental and behavioral factors, including poverty and depression. Income also affects access to the type of health care that can help people with type 2 diabetes manage their disease most effectively.
Type 2 diabetes runs in families. Check in with your doctor if the above symptoms sound familiar, even if you don’t have all of them. Some of these are general symptoms that might be due to other problems. But the earlier you start treating diabetes, the better.
Asthma is an inflammatory reaction to environmental stimuli: viruses, dust, smoke, pet dander or cold. It inflames the airways, making it hard to breathe. Exercise can also trigger asthma in some people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25 million Americans suffer from asthma. Black Americans are not only more likely to have asthma than white Americans, but they are also more likely to have more severe forms of the disease.
Classic symptoms of asthma include a tight feeling in the chest, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing. African Americans, however, may report different symptoms, like throat tightness and trouble speaking. This may confuse the diagnosis.
Some asthma attacks obstruct the airways so severely that the attacks end in death. Black Americans are three times as likely to die from asthma as whites.
Medical researchers believe that genetics plays a significant role in asthma. To date, more than 100 genes have been discovered that may be associated with the development of the disease. But it’s difficult to correlate these genes with the African-American experience when it comes to asthma. Researchers note that the interplay between genetics, the environment and behaviors is responsible for the clinical manifestation of the disease.
Black Americans living in low-income urban settings have higher incidences of asthma than those who live elsewhere. Research suggests that not only are these individuals exposed to more environmental triggers, but they also don’t receive proper diagnosis, care and follow-up. Many asthma-related deaths can be prevented with proper care — but getting care can be a problem.
The National Asthma Education and Prevention Program recommends that people with asthma see a specialist every six months for proper monitoring. Many black Americans living in poorer inner cities can’t do this.
Time for a Checkup
Genetics might make you more disposed to some health problems, but it’s not a guarantee. The only way to know what you’ve got — if anything — is to talk to your doctor on a regular basis, ideally annually. If your family history includes certain diseases, mention these to your doctor as well. Regular testing and screening can go a long way in preventing some diseases or identifying them early enough to mitigate long-term effects.