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Understanding the Health Concerns of Older Black Men

“A Deep Dive into Chronic Diseases and Prevention Strategies”

Black Wall St. MediaContributor

New AARP research gathers insights on the health worries of older African Americans High blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease top the list of health conditions concerning Black men 50 and older, according to a recent AARP survey on the health of older African Americans.

Experts say these fears are not unfounded. “The problem is real, the concern is real,” says Omofolarin Fasuyi, M.D., an assistant professor of family medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

“We have disparities across the spectrum of both physical and mental health issues in the Black population.”

Black adults in the U.S. are 30 percent more likely than their white counterparts to have high blood pressure, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, and they’re 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.

Both conditions are risk factors for heart disease, which is more likely to kill Black men than white men, research shows.

The reason for these disparities, experts say, can be attributed to a range of factors.

Some of it may be biological, Fasuyi says, but other forces — including economic opportunities, structural racism and medical mistrust — are also at play.

Although you can’t control your genetics or swiftly and single-handedly change systemic issues, there are several things individuals can do to help lower their risk of being diagnosed with these chronic diseases.

“There are things that are in our control, and there are things that are out of our control,” says Sachin Shah, M.D., associate professor of medicine at University of Chicago Medicine.

“We really need to focus on our modifiable risk factors, the things that are in our control.”

Here are seven steps that three experts recommend:

1. Lower the amount of sodium in your diet. Do this, and your blood pressure will follow. According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day — more than twice the recommended daily intake of 1,500 mg.

Cutting back doesn’t necessarily mean you need to toss the saltshaker; most of the sodium we consume comes from packaged and prepared foods.

Though avoiding these foods can be difficult — especially for people who don’t have access to fresh, healthy options, or those strapped for time — curbing your intake by even 1,000 mg a day (the equivalent of 1 tablespoon of soy sauce or a few slices of thinly sliced deli meat) can significantly improve blood pressure, research shows.

2. Know your numbers. 

If you’re aware that you have high blood pressure (that’s anything over 130/80 mm Hg) or worried you may be at risk, Shah suggests keeping a blood pressure cuff at home (you can find one for about $20) and staying on top of your numbers.

You can also get free blood pressure readings at some pharmacies and retail stores. High blood pressure, also referred to as hypertension, affects about 56 percent of Black adults in the U.S. and can be symptomless, so monitoring levels is key.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to heart attack, heart failure, stroke and kidney disease.

3. Exercise often. 

Regular physical activity helps reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, many types of cancer, depression and anxiety and dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It can also help to ease pain caused by osteoarthritis — the wear-and-tear arthritis that becomes more common with age and affects Black adults more than white adults, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

4. Find a doctor you trust — and visit regularly. 

Again, this can be difficult for people who face barriers to care, such as lack of health insurance or lack of sick leave.

But routine doctor’s appointments are critical to your health, says David Stewart, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at the University of Maryland Medical System.

Your doctor can make sure you’re up to date on screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes and various forms of cancer.

Left undetected and untreated, these conditions can turn deadly. “Find somebody who knows you, knows your culture, knows your quirks,” Stewart says. “Those are the people who get the best health care whether they’re white or Black.”

According to AARP’s research on Black men’s health, 87 percent of respondents say they have a regular doctor or health care provider, and 85 percent saw their health care provider in the past year.

The vast majority of Black men who participated in AARP’s survey report feeling comfortable with and trusting their doctor.

“Building a relationship with a provider that we can trust is very important in terms of prevention of health conditions that we can pick up early and mitigate the effects,” Fasuyi says.

5. Ask questions. 

When you see your doctor, don’t hesitate to ask questions. AARP’s research found that many proactive discussions on diet, weight and mental health aren’t happening between patients and their providers, and many Black patients miss out on routine screening tests that could catch diseases in an early, more treatable, state.

“Sometimes in busy appointments, your primary care doctor might not always address everything or might forget to say something.

Weight is a big one — we measure it, we calculate BMI (body mass index, your height-to-weight ratio), but we don’t always talk about it. It can be an uncomfortable topic at times, but that’s a good question to bring up,” Shah says.

In addition to discussing whether you’re at a healthy weight, the experts suggest asking your doctor:

Is it time I had some of my regular blood work done?

How does my blood pressure look?

Are there things I can do to improve blood pressure or cholesterol?

Am I due for any cancer screenings? “It’s nice to set the tone and say, ‘I’m here because I want to really optimize my own health.’

If you can form that partnership and build that therapeutic alliance, it goes a long way, because we know that patients who are more engaged and activated in their own health are healthier,” Shah says.

6. Keep others in the loop.

Talking to your family about your health — and theirs — is important, Shah says. So is paying attention to your family’s health history.

“If your parents have diabetes or high blood pressure, you’re certainly at higher risk of developing it, and it’s something that you want to stay pretty vigilant about,” Shah says.

AARP’s research found that about 61 percent of the Black men surveyed have a family history of hypertension; 44 percent have a family history of diabetes.

7. If you smoke, quit.

Smoking can cause cancer, heart disease and diabetes, according to the CDC.

Smoking can cause cancer, heart disease and diabetes, according to the CDC.

Respondents to AARP’s survey report they are not heavy consumers of tobacco or alcohol. Still, Black men across all age groups have the highest rates of smoking in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association.Talk to your doctor about quitting; there are resources that can help.

“These are all lifestyle interventions that we can implement on the individual level to reduce our risk of these multiple health conditions that disproportionately affect black men,” Fasuyi says.

Black Wall St. MediaContributor

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