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8 Health Conditions That Disproportionately Affect Black Women-And what you can do to prevent them

From an article By Zahra Barnes, Executive Editor, SELF Magazine (originally published in 2017)

Here are eight health conditions Black women should be especially aware of, including how to prevent or minimize their risk.

1. Heart disease, stroke, and diabetes

These conditions often occur together or aggravate each other, and they are striking Black women hard. According to CDC data, around 7.6 percent of black women have heart disease, around 46 of every 100,000 black women died from strokes, while 35 of every 100,000 white women did. And Black women's diabetes diagnosis rate is 9.9 percent.

A group of risk factors known as metabolic syndrome increases a person's chance of getting these diseases. These risk factors include having a waist circumference above thirty-five inches in women and forty inches in men, elevated levels of triglycerides (fat in the blood), a low HDL ("good") cholesterol level, high blood pressure, and high fasting blood sugar.

Having even one of these factors can signal higher chances of getting heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Those first two are particularly lethal for Black Women. Most African American adult women are either overweight or obese,” according to Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center. While 37.6 percent of black men ages 20 or over are obese according to the latest data, that number jumps to 56.9 percent for black women, killing one woman about every 80 seconds.

Lifestyle changes like eating better, exercising, and stopping smoking can prevent 80 percent of heart disease events and stroke and lower people's chances of developing diabetes, according to the CDC.

2. Breast cancer

Black women have a 1 in 9 chance of developing breast cancer; according to the American Cancer Society. White women's probability of dying from breast cancer is 1 in 37, while Black women's is 1 in 31. “The reasons why Black women are more likely to die [from breast cancer than other groups] are very complex,” Adrienne Phillips, M.D., oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, tells SELF, citing “an interplay between genetics, biology, and environment.”

Along with BRCA mutations black women are more likely to get triple-negative breast cancer—a particularly aggressive form of the disease—than women of other races. There are also environmental factors like socioeconomic issues that lead to trouble accessing early diagnosis and treatment.

Like metabolic syndrome, lowering your risk of getting breast cancer mainly comes down to exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol to less than 1 drink per day and quitting smoking.

3. Cervical cancer

Research published in January in the journal Cancer found that not only are black women more likely to die of cervical cancer than women of other races, they’re also 77 percent more likely to die from it than experts previously thought. New research puts the number at 10.1 per 100,000.

Cervical cancer is absolutely preventable in this day and age- No woman should be diagnosed with cervical cancer, partly because the HPV vaccine is excellent at preventing infection of certain strains of human papillomavirus that can go on to cause cancer. But racial disparities are relevant here—a 2014 report from the CDC showed that around 71 percent of white girls 13 to 17 had completed the three-shot series, compared with about 62 percent of black girls in that age group.

Timely Pap smears are also wonderfully effective at preventing full-blown cervical cancer. “A Pap smear will detect preinvasive cervical cancer, but…studies have shown women who are having Pap smears may not get appropriate follow-up, and African-American women may be more vulnerable.”

Another potential factor, though, may be racial disparities in cervical cancer treatment. A 2014 study published in Plos One found that “Equivalent treatments are not being given to white and Black patients with cervical cancer in many locations. Recent studies have documented that differences in care may contribute to racial disparities in outcomes for women with cervical cancer."

4. Fibroids

Black women are three times more likely than women of other races to get uterine fibroids - noncancerous tumors in the walls of the uterus, Fibroids are largely genetic, and there's no known way to prevent them. When fibroids start to grow or increase in number, they can cause a large number of problems, from pain to bleeding to miscarriages, to problems with urination and problems with bowel moveme

When fibroids do make themselves known, the first sign is often heavy bleeding or pelvic pain. These symptoms can have a lot of other causes, but if you do have fibroids, you and your doctors can work on a treatment plan. To tackle heavy bleeding and pelvic pain, your doctor may recommend hormonal birth control. But doctors can also perform a myomectomy to remove the fibroids or use techniques like uterine artery embolization and radiofrequency ablation to either block the fibroid from getting nutrients or shrink it. As a last resort, doctors can perform a hysterectomy to put a definitive end to fibroids. This makes it impossible to get pregnant.

5. Premature delivery

Giving birth prematurely, or going into labor before 37 weeks of pregnancy, can cause a child to experience breathing issues, digestive problems, brain bleeding, and long-term developmental delays. It can also lead to death—the earlier a baby is born, the higher this danger becomes.

Unfortunately, Black women are particularly susceptible to going into labor too early. “This is multifactorial problem—it can be affected by obesity, by stress, by diet, by increased vaginal infections, and decreased access to care. Women having access to prenatal care is incredibly important for reducing the risk of preterm birth, but when socioeconomics come into the picture, it becomes a complex situation with too few solutions. There are a variety of state- and national-level initiatives being planned to reduce preterm birth in all women.

6. Sickle cell disease

This is an umbrella term for a collection of inherited, lifelong blood disorders that around 1 of every 365 Black babies is born with. Sickle cell disease is caused by a sickle hemoglobin, which happens when the structure of a person’s hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen to the red blood cells, is abnormal. Instead of being circular, their red blood cells can look like sickles, a C-shaped farming tool.

Sickle-shaped red blood cells can get destroyed in the blood stream, so patients may become anemic. These cells can also clog blood vessels, which can lead to infection, chest pain, and even stroke. And if a pregnant woman has sickle cell disease, it increases the probability of miscarriage, premature birth, and having a baby with a low birth weight

Black women who are considering having children should get themselves screened for sickle cell and the sickle cell trait. If your partner also has sickle cell trait, there is a 25 percent chance your child will inherit sickle cell disease. With proper care and caution to avoid complications, kids with sickle cell disease can live healthy, happy live

7. Sexually transmitted diseases

Black women still outpace other groups when it comes to new diagnoses of sexually transmitted diseases including gonorrhea, chlamydia, along with new diagnoses of syphilis and HIV/AIDS. Besides Black men, Black women make up most new HIV/AIDS diagnoses per year. Access to good preventive care is the best prevention measure to reduce this problem.

Lack of economic resources is also a factor—condoms and dental dams cost money—as well a general reluctance to discuss safe sex practices. There is a stigma around talking about sex, so people engage in risky sexual activity without protection.

8. Mental health issues

In addition to the usual biological causes of mental illness issues, economic insecurity and racism can also negatively impact mental health status in the black community.

Overall, black people are 10 percent more likely to report experiencing serious psychological distress than white people. Black People face a lot of economic insecurity and racism in general. It is a problem that causes stress and anxiety, which then can lead into depression, and we tend not to discuss these issues. The Black community is wrestling with the stigma of seeking help for mental distress also. There is also the reality of reduced access to mental health counseling , and the fact that mental health care can be expensive. Many counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists do not take health insurance, which may deter people from getting the help they need.

Black women are especially vulnerable to wrestling with their mental health, consistently reporting higher feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and the sense that everything is an effort than white women do. Black women are frequently the pillars of the community, taking care of everyone’s health but their own. It is important for women to practice self-care and not forget about themselves when trying to be so strong for others.

If you know someone struggling with their mental health, help is available through the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI has a comprehensive page about mental health concerns in the black community and a help line that operates Monday through Friday, 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. – 1-800- 950-6264.


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