April marks the start of National Minority Health Month (NMHM), a time of year dedicated to boosting awareness around the health disparities and illnesses that disproportionately impact individuals of racial and ethnic minority groups.
With origins dating back to 1915 when Booker T. Washington established National Negro Health Week, this month is dedicated to educating our community on proper health equity, encouraging early detection practices like screenings and check-ups for disease prevention, and spotlighting healthcare initiatives and programs that provide resources for healthy lifestyle options.
In the effort to raise awareness around the health issues that impact our community, we’ve put together a list of some of the often overlooked or most pressing health conditions and diseases that impact Black women and our community at large.
Currently, heart disease is the leading cause of death for Black women in the U.S. and according to cardiologist, Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, this is a direct result of the lack of awareness around the condition, “Each year, more African American women die from heart disease than breast cancer, lung cancer and strokes combined, which makes heart disease the No. 1 killer of African American women in our nation,” she shared in a Mayo Clinic report. “However, studies have also revealed that less than half of African American women are aware that heart disease is their No. 1 cause of death.”
Heart disease is shown to come in many forms such as clogged arteries, heart failure and stroke, which can be linked to other health factors like obesity, hypertension and diabetes that can increase the risk of developing these conditions.
Dr. Brewer also shared in the study how preexisting health disparities that impact the Black community reflect the source of these issues. “Unfortunately, African American women are faced with an overwhelmingly high burden of negative social determinants of health, and these include chronic stress related to factors like food insecurity, systemic racism, the wealth gap, and socioeconomically disenfranchised communities. These challenges really prevent African American women from following a healthy lifestyle and controlling many of the heart disease risk factors.”
In the U.S., Black Americans are reported by the Office of Minority Health Resource Center to have the highest “mortality rate of any racial and ethnic group for all cancers combined and for most major cancers.” Between 2014 and 2018, studies showed that while Black American women were just as likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer to non-Hispanic white women, they are almost 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer, as compared to non-Hispanic white women. While these numbers are jarring, they speak to a wider issue in the disparities that result in health outcomes from one group of people to another.
In 2019, suicide became the second leading cause of death for Black Americans, ages 15 to 24, with socioeconomic factors such as poverty levels, which disproportionately impact the mental well-being of Black women and youth. As we’ve seen from the untimely passing of public figures like Miss USA 2019, Cheslie Kryst, the space for dialogue around mental health is still crucial.
A 2021 research study found that there was a 30 percent increase in the suicide rates among Black people in the U.S., while rates among white people saw a decline in that same time period.
According to a 2021 study by the CDC, rates of anxiety and depression among people of color increased from 2020 to 2021. The data found that between January and February 2021, nearly 45 percent of the Black participants reported having experienced episodes of depression or anxiety.
More than 37 million Americans live with diabetes and studies have found that Black women are more often impacted by type 2 diabetes than any other racial group. Diabetes had been linked to other health complications such as kidney damage, heart disease, and can worsen the symptoms of COVID-19.
A study by The Black Women’s Health Imperative Agenda found that Black adults “are 60% more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes — and twice as likely to die of the condition.”
While type 2 diabetes is a common condition among Black women, we can be comforted by the fact that with proper measures, exercise and healthy eating, it can be prevented. Dr. Angela Ford, Chief Programs Officer at the Black Women’s Health Imperative, says they can help. “There are thousands of Black women who can actually make the necessary changes to prevent [type 2 diabetes] and potentially save their lives if they have access to the opportunity, resources, and support offered through our lifestyle change program,” she tells ESSENCE. Although these health conditions may run in our families and can be attached to generations of going undiagnosed, Dr. Ford assures women that even if diabetes is a part of one’s family health history, it doesn’t have to be your destiny.
How to take action and advocate for your health.
Tammy Boyd, MPH, JD, Chief Policy Officer and Counsel for the Black Women’s Health Imperative shares that closing the gap between health disparities comes through presenting Black women with the full realm of options that are available to them. “There still needs to be a lot of education and awareness about participating in clinical trials and why it’s important for us to do that,” she tells ESSENCE. “A lot of times, we hear about these studies out there and [Black women] aren’t even offered participation in clinical trials for proper treatment options. But a lot of doctors haven’t been pushed to empower Black women to ask, ‘what is the complete tip continuum of health options for me?’”
Additionally, while it’s important for patients to feel empowered to advocate for themselves, doctors must also have the proper education on how to engage, speak to, and care for their Black patients given their cultural backgrounds in order to combat implicit biases.
“For doctors, how do you engage with a multicultural community?” Boyd asks. “Make sure that we have health providers who look like the people who actually come into your office and can speak to them in a way that they understand.”