Focusing On Black Women’s Health

In honor of #Junteenth, which is TODAY, 🖤❤️💛💚 we wanted to focus on the importance of women’s health among Black women. As Black women, we MUST make our health a priority!

Black women are often plagued with disproportionately high incidences or mortality rates for various health conditions, like heart disease, breast cancer, and more.

It sounds scary—and it can be—but knowledge is power, especially when it comes to your physical and mental health. Self Magazine recently released 8 health conditions black women should be especially aware of, plus how to best prevent them.

  1. Heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Around 7.6 percent of black women have heart disease, compared to 5.8 percent of white women and 5.6 percent of Mexican-American women, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2011-2013. In 2016, around 46 of every 100,000 black women died from strokes, while 35 of every 100,000 white women did. And while white women’s diabetes diagnosis rate is 5.4 per 100, that number is 9.9 per 100 for black women, according to CDC data from 1980-2014—almost double. 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 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men, high levels of triglycerides (fat in the blood), a low HDL (“good”) cholesterol level, high blood pressure, and high fasting blood sugar. 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. But clearly, that’s sometimes easier said than done.
  2. Breast Cancer: Black women have a 1 in 9 chance of developing breast cancer; for white women the odds are 1 in 8, according to the American Cancer Society. But black women are more likely to die from the disease: White women’s probability of dying from breast cancer is 1 in 37, while black women’s is 1 in 31. Along with BRCA mutations (which may be higher in black women than experts previously thought), black women are more likely to get triple-negative breast cancer—a particularly aggressive form of the disease—than women of other races. Then there are the environmental factors, like socioeconomic issues that lead to trouble accessing early diagnosis and treatment. Much like metabolic syndrome, lowering your risk of getting breast cancer mainly comes down to exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, not going overboard on alcohol, and quitting smoking. And even though major organizations haven’t found a notable benefit from breast self-exams, it is strongly recommend you check your breasts monthly so you’re aware of any changes.
  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. Prior estimates said 5.7 black women per 100,000 would die of the disease, but this new research puts the number at 10.1 per 100,000. However, the HPV vaccine is excellent at preventing infection of certain strains of human papillomavirus that can go on to cause cancer. But as of August 2016, only 6 out of 10 girls ages 13 to 17 and 5 of 10 boys in the same age range had started the vaccine series. 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. A number of barriers exist for proper follow-up, and African-American women may be more vulnerable.”
  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, according to the Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health. Fibroids are largely genetic, and there’s no known way to prevent them. Most of the time, women don’t know they have fibroids because they don’t have symptoms. 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, we can work on a treatment plan. To tackle heavy bleeding and pelvic pain, hormonal birth control may be recommended. A myomectomy to remove the fibroids or other techniques like uterine artery embolization and radiofrequency ablation can help to either block the fibroid from getting nutrients or shrink it.
  5. Premature delivery: Giving birth prematurely, or going into labor before 37 weeks of pregnancy, can predispose a child to 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. According to the CDC, the 2015 preterm birth rate in black women was 13 percent; for white women it was 9 percent. This is multifactorial—it can be affected by obesity, by stress, by diet, by increased vaginal infections, and the decreased access to care in some of our populations. Women having access to prenatal care is incredibly important for slashing the risk of preterm birth, but when socioeconomics come into the picture, it becomes a complex situation with too few solutions. However, the CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health is working on a variety of state- and national-level initiatives 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, according to the CDC. 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, according to the March of Dimes. Black women who are considering children should get screened for sickle cell no matter what. It’s possible to not have the disease but have the sickle cell trait, meaning you inherited one sickle cell gene and one normal gene from your parents. If your partner also has sickle cell trait, there is a 25 percent chance your child will inherit sickle cell disease. According to a CDC estimate from 2014, 73 out of every 1,000 black newborns was born with sickle cell trait, compared with 3 out of every 1,000 white newborns. With proper care and caution to avoid complications, kids with sickle cell disease can live healthy, happy lives—it’s essential for their parents to get the proper education about how to keep them safe.
  7. Sexually transmitted diseases: Here’s a bit of good news: Rates of reported chlamydia cases in black people decreased 11.2 percent from 2011 to 2015, according to the CDC. There was a similar downward trend with gonorrhea, which declined 4 percent in that time frame. But black women still outpace other groups when it comes to new diagnoses of these diseases, along with new diagnoses of syphilis. This problem also extends to HIV/AIDS. Besides black men, black women comprise a majority of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses per year (although the number is thankfully falling). For example, according to the CDC, in 2015, 4,524 black women were diagnosed with HIV in the United States, while 1,431 white women and 1,131 Hispanic/Latina women received the same diagnosis. It’s not like black women are having more sex than anyone else, Access to good preventive care is the crux of it—if [women] could see health care providers on a regular basis and be educated about what they should be doing to take care of themselves, we probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem. There’s a stigma around talking about sex, so people engage in risky sexual activity without protection, so we have to talk about the importance of birth control within our communities, and especially among the younger generation of Black women.”
  8. Mental health issues: In addition to the usual biological culprits that can contribute to mental illness issues, economic insecurity and racism can 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, according to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. 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 our community, taking care of everyone’s health but our own. It’s very important for women to practice self-care and not forget about themselves when trying to be so strong. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, help is out there. The National Alliance on Mental Illness 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. NAMI also provides a list of 25 different help lines people can turn to when they need support.

 

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