Five health conditions that disproportionately affect the black community

While the death rate for Black people in the U.S. has declined 25% in the past two decades, there continue to be health conditions that disproportionately affect the Black community compared to non-Hispanic white people in the U.S. This disparity can partly be explained by genetics, and partly because of economic and social issues.

Here are five conditions that people in the Black community should be especially aware of as we work together to keep everyone in the U.S. as healthy as possible.

1. Hypertension

Black people in the U.S. have a higher incidence of hypertension (high blood pressure) than people of other races or ethnicities. Genetics and biology do seem to play a role, as evidenced by the fact that blood pressure medications affect the blood pressure of Black people differently than the blood pressure of patients who aren’t Black. Black people also seem to be more sensitive to salt than other groups, which can drive their blood pressure even higher.

However, biology doesn’t seem to be the whole story, since in many other countries, hypertension affects Blacks and whites in equal numbers. This indicates that other factors unique to the U.S., including lifestyle, diet, economic factors and health care disparities likely also play a role in high hypertension rates among people in the Black community.

2. Breast cancer

The rate of death from breast cancer is 40% higher among Black women than white women. Also, Black women are more prone to get breast cancer at younger ages. Thirty percent of Black patients with newly diagnosed breast cancer are under 50 years old, compared to twenty percent of white patients under 50.

Researchers attribute the disproportionate impact of breast cancer on Black women to several factors. First, Black women are genetically more prone to what’s called “triple negative” breast cancer (TNBC), which lacks three receptors breast cancer cells commonly have, and makes TNBC more difficult to treat than other forms.

Economic and social issues also play a role in breast cancer deaths among Black women, since lack of health insurance, lack of access to medical care and prohibitive out-of-pocket health care costs are all barriers to women getting the breast cancer screening and treatment they need.

3. Prostate cancer

Black men are 50% more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime than other men of color and non-Hispanic white men. They’re also 2.5 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts.

Researchers attribute these prostate cancer diagnoses and deaths to several factors. First, prostate cancer in Black men tends to have more aggressive characteristics, which is likely caused by an inherited genetic defect.

Also, prostate cancer tends to develop in Black men at younger ages than other men, so often they don’t receive the early screening they need. And, as with breast cancer, income and health care disparities also delay the screening, diagnosis and treatment that can be effective against prostate cancer in its earlier stages.

4. Diabetes

Black people in the U.S. are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. They’re also more likely to experience complications from diabetes, including limb amputations and kidney disease.

Studies have shown that obesity is the most likely explanation for this discrepancy.  Obesity is higher in the black community than any other group in the U.S. And Black people are genetically predisposed to carrying excess fat around their abdomen instead of their hips, which increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. 

Lack of exercise is another factor that contributes to obesity and diabetes. According to the Office of Minority Health, people in the Black community are 20% less likely to engage in physical activity than non-Hispanic whites.

Focusing on a healthy diet, exercise and weight loss can help prevent diabetes or keep it well-controlled. Educating patients with diabetes is another vital component of their care, since closely managing their blood sugar and complying with their medications can prevent the devastating consequences diabetes can have.

5. Strokes

Black patients are more likely to have a stroke than their counterparts, and their strokes tend to be more severe compared to strokes in patients of other ethnicities or races. In fact, a study with more than 30,000 participants in the U.S. showed that Black men between the ages of 45-54 were three times more likely to die of a stroke than their counterparts.

The high incidence of strokes in the Black community likely has several causes. Genetics are thought to play a role in stroke risk. Hypertension is another key risk factor for strokes. Since Black people are more likely to develop hypertension, and develop it at younger ages, their risk of strokes increases.

And other chronic health conditions that Black people are more likely to develop, including obesity and diabetes, also contribute to the increased risk of strokes in the Black community.

Diagnosing and treating underlying health conditions like hypertension, diabetes and obesity can lower the rate of complications from these individual conditions, and can diminish the combined effect they have on the cardiovascular system, which reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.