Black History Month: How African Americans Can Reduce Health Risks

Prioritizing your health is very important all year long, but life can get busy, and screenings and checkups sometimes end up at the bottom of the to-do list. February offers a perfect opportunity to talk to your provider about health concerns and learn about certain health risks that disproportionately face the African American community. 

“At Weill Cornell Medicine, we really embrace diversity and inclusion,” says Vivian Jolley Bea, M.D.,  assistant professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University. “We have diverse representation within our divisions and departments and have even held a continuing medical education session to educate providers so they have the tools they need to take care of all patients.”  

By seeing your provider regularly and staying up to date on necessary screenings, you can reduce your risks and focus on living a healthy life. 

Staying Aware of Health Risks 

African Americans are affected by many health conditions at a higher rate than other populations. By being aware of what these conditions are, you can talk with your provider about your individual risk factors and what you can do to lower those risks. 

The following conditions are more prevalent among the African American community than non-Hispanic white communities: 

  • Heart disease and stroke: African Americans are at higher risk of dying of heart disease and stroke than other populations. But by managing key risk factors, you can help your heart stay healthy. According to the American Heart Association, Black people have the highest incidence of high blood pressure in the world, and it frequently develops at an earlier age than in white people. Another big risk factor, obesity, affects Black people at high rates: 69% of males and 82% of females ages 20 and older are overweight or obese. 
  • Diabetes: In 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that non-Hispanic Black people are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes and twice as likely to die from the disease as white people. Diabetes can lead to many serious complications, including chronic kidney disease, heart disease, nerve damage and problems with feet, vision, hearing and mental health.  
  • Cancer: African Americans have the lowest rate of survival and highest death rate for most cancers in the United States. Black women have a 40% higher risk of dying from breast cancer than white women, while Black men are twice as likely as Asians and Pacific Islanders, who have the lowest rates, to die from any type of cancer. “We certainly see a large population of African American women who have triple-negative breast cancer, which portends a more aggressive tumor type,” Dr. Bea says.  

Lowering Risk Factors 

While some risk factors, such as having a family history of a disease, are out of your control, others can be managed by adopting a healthier lifestyle. In particular, certain lifestyle changes can decrease your risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. These include: 

  • Losing weight/maintaining a healthy weight: Weight plays a major role in your health. Being overweight or obese can make you more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes and even certain cancers. If the numbers on the scale are higher than they should be, talk to your doctor about developing a personalized weight loss plan. If you are currently within a healthy weight range, continue to practice healthy habits to prevent extra pounds from creeping on. 
  • Eating a healthy diet: Aim to fill your diet with fruits and veggies; whole grains; healthy proteins such as fish, lean chicken and legumes and low-fat dairy products. Limit salt, added sugars, alcohol and highly processed foods. 
  • Getting regular physical activity: The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This could include activities like brisk walking, water aerobics, dancing or biking. If you’ve been sedentary for a long time, you can start with a little activity and work your way up, such as starting with a couple of short walks during the day. Over time, you can increase the length and intensity of your exercise.  

Prioritize Checkups and Screenings  

Visiting your primary care provider (PCP) at least once per year, even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms of any kind, can help you stay healthy. Your PCP can talk to you about your personal health risks and what you can do to lower those risks, update your vaccinations and help you stay on track with recommended screenings, including: 

  • Blood pressure checks: Have your blood pressure checked from time to time throughout the year. 
  • Breast cancer: The American Cancer Society recommends women ages 45 to 54 get a screening mammogram every year. Those 40 to 44 should talk to their doctor about when to begin, as should younger women who have a higher risk of breast cancer. Women ages 55 and older can continue annual screening or switch to every other year. 
  • Cholesterol: Women with risk factors for cardiovascular disease should begin cholesterol screenings at age 40 to 45, while women without risk factors should begin at age 45. Men should begin screening at age 35. 
  • Colorectal cancer: Screening for colorectal cancer should begin at age 45 for both men and women, although those with a family history of the disease may begin sooner. 
  • Diabetes: Men and women who have risk factors for diabetes should get their first screening at age 35 and continue every three years. Some people at higher risk may be tested more often. 

Dr. Bea implores African Americans to continue to prioritize their health year after year. “We have to be secure, stable and healthy,” she says. “I recommend meditation, healthy eating, drinking water, exercising and really decompressing, because that will help determine our overall health and allow us to be here for our families.”

Specialists at Weill Cornell Medicine are here to discuss your health concerns and help ensure that you are meeting your wellness goals. Find a provider today.