Feature Archive

Why 7 Deadly Diseases Strike Blacks Most

Health care disparities heighten disease differences between African-Americans and white Americans.

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Several deadly diseases strike black Americans harder and more often than they do white Americans.

Fighting back means genetic research. It means changing the system for testing new drugs. It means improving health education. It means overcoming disparities in health care. It means investments targeted to the health of black Americans. And the evidence so far indicates that these investments will pay health dividends not just for racial minorities, but for everyone.

Yet we're closer to the beginning of the fight than to the end. Some numbers:

  • Diabetes is 60% more common in black Americans than in white Americans. Blacks are up to 2.5 times more likely to suffer a limb amputation and up to 5.6 times more likely to suffer kidney disease than other people with diabetes.
  • African-Americans are three times more likely to die of asthma than white Americans.
  • Deaths from lung scarring -- sarcoidosis -- are 16 times more common among blacks than among whites. The disease recently killed former NFL star Reggie White at age 43.
  • Despite lower tobacco exposure, black men are 50% more likely than white men to get lung cancer.
  • Strokes kill 4 times more 35- to 54-year-old black Americans than white Americans. Blacks have nearly twice the first-time stroke risk of whites.
  • Blacks develop high blood pressure earlier in life -- and with much higher blood pressure levels -- than whites. Nearly 42% of black men and more than 45% of black women aged 20 and older have high blood pressure.
  • Cancer treatment is equally successful for all races. Yet black men have a 40% higher cancer death rate than white men. African-American women have a 20% higher cancer death rate than white women.

Why?

Genes definitely play a role. So does the environment in which people live, socioeconomic status -- and, yes, racism, says Clyde W. Yancy, MD, associate dean of clinical affairs and medical director for heart failure/transplantation at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Yancy says that all humans have the same physiology, are vulnerable to the same illnesses, and respond to the same medicines. Naturally, diseases and responses to treatment do vary from person to person. But, he says, there are unique issues that affect black Americans.

"We must recognize there are some arbitrary issues that are present in the way we practice medicine and dole out health care," Yancy tells WebMD. "It forces us to think very carefully about the very volatile issue of race and what race means. At the end of the day, all of us acknowledge that race is a very poor physiological construct. Race is a placeholder for something else. That something is less likely to be genetic. It is more likely to have to do with socioeconomics and political issues of bias as well as physiologic and genetic issues that go into that same bucket. Some racial differences are more nuances. But there are issues of disparity and there are issues relative to racism that operate in a very broad context."

Like Yancy, LeRoy M. Graham Jr., MD, says the time is ripe for Americans to come to grips with these issues. Graham, a pediatric lung expert, serves on the American Lung Association's board of directors, is associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and serves as staff physician for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"I just think we as physicians need to get more impassioned," Graham tells WebMD. "There are health disparities. There are things that may have more sinister origins in institutionalized racism. But we as doctors need to spend more time recognizing these disparities and addressing them -- together with our patients -- on a very individual level."

Black Americans and Lung Disease

A 2005 report from the American Lung Association shows that black Americans suffer far more lung disease than white Americans do.

Some of the findings:

  • Black Americans have more asthma than any racial or ethnic group in America. And blacks are 3 times more likely to die of asthma than whites.
  • Black Americans are 3 times more likely to suffer sarcoidosis than white Americans. The lung-scarring disease is 16 times more deadly for blacks than for whites.
  • Black American children are 3 times as likely as white American children to have sleep apnea.
  • Black American babies die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) 2.5 times as often as white American babies.
  • Black American men are 50% more likely to get lung cancer than white American men.
  • Black Americans are half as likely to get flu and pneumonia vaccinations as white Americans.