African Americans are dying an average of 3.4 years before white Americans, a significant gap that’s attributable to more prevalent cardiovascular disease (CVD) and risk factors in the black population, the American Heart Association (AHA) reported in a scientific statement published Monday in Circulation.
Although heart disease is the leading killer for all Americans, CVD and stroke are two major sources of mortality in the black demographic, Mercedes R. Carnethon, MD, and colleagues wrote in the statement—more so than in white populations. Between 1999 and 2010, according to Carnethon and co-authors, CVD was to blame for more than two million years of life lost in blacks.
Despite socioeconomic status, which can be a major contributor to health outcomes, blacks have repeatedly experienced more heart attacks, sudden cardiac arrest, heart failure and strokes than white Americans. This is true in the growing middle- and upper-class black communities, too, Carnethon and colleagues noted, though blacks experience an 11 percent higher poverty rate than the general population.
The authors wrote this is likely because risk factors for heart disease and stroke like hypertension, obesity and diabetes present themselves earlier in blacks than in whites—high blood pressure has been diagnosed in 13.8 percent of black children compared to 8.4 percent in white children. Into adulthood, according to the AHA, risk of persisting hypertension in black adults is 1.5 times higher than in whites.
“It is vital that we start preventing disparities by reaching children and young adults with education about the importance of a healthy lifestyle for maintaining health,” Carnethon said in an AHA release. “Young adulthood is a time when a lot of people drop out of the healthcare system. If there’s no safety net of healthcare available that emphasizes preventive care, then these disparities in the onset of the risk factors are likely to persist.”
Black women are also more likely to struggle with obesity—58 percent of the total population—compared with white women, and the same gap is apparent in men and children.
Carnethon also said blacks are more likely to experience stressors beyond what white populations experience.
“Although most people experience stress from jobs and major life events, African Americans are more likely to have persistent economic stress and to face concerns about maintaining their health, including preventing weight gain and managing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes,” she said.
After reviewing almost 300 scientific studies to draw the conclusions included in their statement, Carnethon and colleagues recommended making overall, public environments—schools, for instance—healthier, as well as building grocery stores in food deserts and creating safe, monitored spaces for physical activity. The full statement, which can be found here, details the long struggle blacks have faced with heart disease, including disparities between black and white populations, how traditional risk factors influence health outcomes, genetic and biological factors that contribute to cardiovascular risk and prevention and disease management in the greater population.