African-Americans have benefited from a decrease in death rates from 1999 to 2015 of about 25%. This good news is overshadowed in part by the fact that African-Americans still lag behind whites in their life expectancies by 4 to 5 years. While women of all ethnic groups generally outlive men, an African-American woman’s life expectancy is about the same as that of white men (but not white women), while African-American men lag consistently behind their female counterparts. Chronic disease takes a disproportionate toll on African-Americans and those from 10 to 49 years of age are twice as likely to die of heart disease than whites.
High blood pressure (often associated with diabetes) contributes to heart disease and African-Americans aged 35 to 64 are 50% more likely to suffer from hypertension than whites in the same age group. In the same 18 to 64 year old age group, African-Americans also have more diabetes than their white counterparts, reaching 9% more in the 50 to 64 year old age group.
Since strokes are a direct result of high blood pressure, it is not surprising that African-Americans from 50 to 64 years of age have 5% more strokes than whites in the same age group, and have 20% more hypertension. When all diseases are considered, African-Americans are 30% more likely to die than whites, in all age groups from 18 to 64 years old.
Many factors contribute to these persistent differences, but social determinants play a huge role in health outcomes across all ethnic groups. Statistically, African-Americans are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, be unable to see a doctor because of cost and not be a homeowner. As far as health-related risk factors, African-Americans are more likely to smoke, more likely to be obese and more likely to be physically inactive than their white counterparts in all age groups.
Such depressing ethnic differences are not inevitable, nor are they genetically determined. Positive initiatives are working toward increasing access to care through rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers. Collaboration with the public to stress the importance of regular medical supervision and increasing awareness among providers of the importance of social determinants on health outcomes are both critical factors.
Cultural barriers to care should be eliminated through educations and a concerted effort to insure adequate representation of African-American healthcare providers. Patients are much more likely to respond to providers who look like them. Currently, our healthcare workforce does not reflect our clientele, especially among those who cater to African-Americans. While this may be equally true of other ethnic groups, the provider/clientele differences remain particularly acute for African-Americans.
There is no genetic reason why African-Americans must die earlier than whites. It is the obligation of caregivers, public health officials and policy makers to address the pervasive problem of disparities in health care outcomes and continually try to reduce these shameful differences.
In order to address the causes and results of health disparities, as well as propose some solutions, the Region 6 Office of Public Health will sponsor its 7th Annual Societal and Health Symposium on Thursday, February 15th from 9:00am to 11:00am at Coughlin Hall on the LSU-Alexandria Campus, located at 30 Grady Britt Drive, Alexandria, LA 71302. The event is free and open to the public. The MLK Scholarship Luncheon, sponsored by LSUA, will follow, but requires registration. Everyone interested in health and social justice is encouraged to attend.