Every race or ethnic group has specific health concerns resulting from environmental and cultural factors, including lifestyle, genetics and more. But in recent years, access to care has emerged as another factor disproportionately affecting black communities and other communities of color at alarming rates.
The Space Coast is no exception.
Among the deadliest of diseases for African Americans, diabetes, stroke and heart disease are now being diagnosed at alarmingly younger ages.
Diabetes, or high blood sugar, is a heightened area of concern for African Americans who are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed as non-Hispanic whites. Further, we know that people with diabetes are also more likely to have certain conditions that increase the chances of having heart disease or stroke, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
“Eighty percent of chronic illnesses are environmental, meaning we do have the ability to change the outcome,” said Marissa Rocourt, MD, an internist with Brevard Health Care in Melbourne.
While her patient population skews towards the elderly, she said she doesn’t see significant differences in diagnoses by race within her practice. She suggests that Brevard County residents are highly educated and healthy, compared to other areas in Florida.
Diabetes and prediabetes are serious conditions affecting millions of Floridians and is the seventh leading cause of death in the state, with education and early detection being critically important.
The risk of diabetes is 77% higher among African Americans than among non-Hispanic white Americans. Sadly, diabetes is a growing epidemic that costs an estimated $24.3 billion in Florida annually, and people with diabetes have medical expenses that are approximately 2.3 times higher than those who do not.
Because the cost of managing diabetes can be so expensive, there is consensus in the medical community that many patients in the black community shy from seeking the help that’s so vitally important, leading to more serious complications and diseases.
A report on health disparities published by US News and World Report in 2016 explained that “where we live determines opportunities to access high-quality education, employment, housing, fresh foods or outdoor space – all contributors to our health,” concluding that zip code might be more important than genetic code for health outcomes. Racial bias also plays a role, as does cultural and environmental stressors, which are contributing to blacks getting sicker at younger ages, enduring more severe illnesses and more rapid biological aging than whites.
Stroke and Heart Disease
Stroke and heart disease pack a one-two punch as the leading killer and cause of death for all Americans. As terrifying as that sounds, the risks of getting those diseases are even higher for African Americans.
African Americans ages 35-64 years are 50% more likely to have high blood pressure than their white counterparts. We know that high blood pressure is a leading risk factor for stroke and heart disease because over time it damages the lining of the arteries, making them more susceptible to the buildup of plaque, which ultimately narrows the arteries leading to the heart and brain.
And although the death rate for African Americans decreased 25% from 1999 to 2015, African Americans ages 18-49 are still twice as likely to die from heart disease than whites.
“Everyone wants to be well, however, many don’t understand what it takes to be well,” said Dr. Rocourt. “I spend a lot of time with my patients educating them on the importance of a healthy diet and nutrition, combined with remaining active.”
Making healthy choices is often made more difficult, culturally speaking, while so many of our family traditions – how we eat and how we prepare meals are heavily influenced by how we were raised. However, the importance of making proper food choices cannot be overstated when treating or living with diabetes, she continued.
Dr. Charles Croft, a Melbourne interventional cardiologist affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, agrees that reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke requires controlling risk factors. This means choosing not to smoke, limiting alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, working to control high blood pressure and diabetes, decreasing weight if needed, and monitoring cholesterol.
Regular checkups with the dentist and annual checkups with health care providers are another important tool in the fight to stay healthy.
It’s encouraging to see that more and more African Americans are taking a proactive approach in their healthcare, while working to understand disease onset and how to manage life after a diagnosis.
“While socioeconomic hardships still persist, through education and understanding how lifestyle choices and adjustments can positively influence health outcomes, we are seeing patients take an active role in their health,” Croft said.
African Americans are widely insured, both through private and federal programs, and plans like the Affordable Care Act have opened inroads to access that previously did not exist.
“Knowledge is strength and patients know this dictum. They are increasingly informed, intelligent and well-balanced with their treatment options and this contributes to better patient outcomes,” added Dr. Croft.
BY KELLY COLLAZO CAMIRAND –