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What Causes Conditions Like Chronic Heart Disease to Be So Prevalent Among African Americans?

Doctor protecting a heartAmericans are cautioned by doctors to avoid unhealthy eating, cigarette smoking and skipping regular workouts. That’s with good reason, too: approximately 25% of all deaths in the United States, for both men and women, are due to heart disease.

But some demographics face an even bigger risk of an early death, often due to factors that go beyond health care.

According to new research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association on May 27, nearly half of all African American adults have some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

They also carry twice as much risk as white adults when it comes to having a first-ever stroke.

Those who are at the greatest risk for such problems are African Americans of lower socioeconomic status.

The data was compiled from more than 5,300 African Americans living in and around Jackson, Mississippi, in a study that took place over 10 years. Researchers recorded 362 new or recurrent instances of CVD in that time, including heart attacks, strokes, cardiovascular procedures and deaths due to heart disease.

Of the 362 subjects, 213 were women and 149 were men.

Researchers also found that African Americans with low socioeconomic status had higher rates of “obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and physical inactivity” when compared to African Americans with higher socioeconomic status.

The study’s lead author, Samson Y. Gebreab, Ph.D., M.Sc., explained that other “psychosocial stressors such as chronic stress, depression, discrimination” can cause African American women, especially, to be “more likely to live and work in a worse physical and social environment.”

Other risk factors were also measured in the study, such as the prevalence of cigarette smoking, which leads to CVD and other conditions for more than 8.6 million Americans. In New York state alone, there are 2.4 million smokers, and nationwide approximately 20% of the adult population uses some form of tobacco product daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lack of access to health care, healthy foods, and safe places to get physical activity can also have adverse affects on one’s health and are more likely to affect those in lower socioeconomic levels, according to the study.

However, other researchers caution against thinking of health in terms of black and white — literally.

Prof. James S. Jackson, co-director of the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, says that researchers focus too much on race when looking at health disparities among demographics.

Race matters, Jackson said, but it’s ultimately genetically irrelevant when it comes to measuring health among different groups.

Jackson has researched the subject for more than 30 years and has found that health disparities between African Americans and non-Hispanic whites comes from two major issues: structural racism in the U.S. and how people respond to stress.

But what Jackson and other researchers found did reveal some interesting information on differences between how black and white Americans age.

As black Americans age, they tend to be more likely to gravitate toward behaviors like excessive smoking, overeating and substance abuse. These patterns don’t tend to arise until later in life, Jackson said, and often result as emotional coping strategies from life’s stresses, often tied to socioeconomic status and institutional racism.

Those, in turn, lead to the health problems like those described in the CVD study.