Prison populations more vulnerable to heart conditions

A new study by researchers at Yale and Drexel Universities explores the heart health problems associated with incarceration, in populations including those currently in prison and the released.

There isn’t a lot of data on these populations because they are largely ignored by the healthcare system. But new research, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, reveals that they are more susceptible to developing heart disease than other groups.

One out of every 10 prisoners reports having been diagnosed with a heart-related problem, according to the study, which was led by Emily Wang, MD, an associate professor at Yale’s School of Medicine.

"The normalcy of incarceration in this country in certain communities, and the disproportionate incarceration of individuals of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds, makes understanding the health risks of incarceration critical to improving health disparities," Wang said in a statement.

Black people, who already experience significant disparities in healthcare and access, are incarcerated six times higher than whites.

"Many individuals who are incarcerated are disadvantaged in many ways before they go to prison," said Ana Diez Roux, MD, PhD, a lead researcher on the study and the dean of Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health, in a statement. "This adversely affects their health in many ways. And the prison environment itself can have major health impacts."

In the study, data showed that because many incarcerated people have their health conditions and medications managed by prison staff, they are often lost on how to manage them themselves once they are out.

"So when these prisoners are released, many find it difficult to manage their high blood pressure or diabetes, since they didn't have to do much of anything when incarcerated," Wang said. "We may need to address self-efficacy and bolster self-management skills when an individual is incarcerated to improve health outcomes when they are released."

Additionally, because incarceration causes stress and anxiety in prisoners, they are likely to pick up coping mechanisms like smoking, or develop conditions like depression once they are released. Substance abuse and risky sexual behavior are also a byproduct of stress.

"Because the incarcerated population is so large, and many prisoners re-enter the community at some point, protecting their health in the long run and ensuring that they have adequate health care during the transition is critical," Diez Roux said. "This isn't just important for the ex-prisoners themselves, but also for their families and the communities that they re-enter, which also benefit from improved health and support in the re-entry population."