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Unraveling The African American Health Disparity: Four Ways Men Can Fight Back

06/16/2017 11:15 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 13:14 EDT

When it comes to health, your race and gender can be a factor in how long you live. This is especially true for the 21.5 million African American men who live in the U.S.

Categorically, African American men are the unhealthiest of all Americans. Threats that disproportionately affect all men like heart disease, stroke and cancer are impacting African American men earlier in their lives, resulting in more complications and more serious problems down the line, including higher mortality rates.

Already men are at a disadvantage when it comes to life expectancy. Women outlive men by five years, and white men outlive African American men by another five years. Why the disparity?

Genetics and family history play a role, but lifestyle and lack of preventative care are far greater contributors. June is National Men’s Health Month – the perfect catalyst to start a discussion about why African American males are not as healthy as the rest of the population. Here are four shocking statistics to get your attention, along with manageable solutions to help change the tide.

1.Nearly half of all African American men have some form of cardiovascular disease. Heart disease is the single biggest killer globally, and, not surprisingly, the leading cause of death among African American men. Not only are African American men more prone to heart disease, they are also twice as likely to die prematurely as a result.

What you can do. Visit your health provider as soon as possible to assess your risk. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise are the most dangerous factors. These conditions are all manageable, but to treat them, you must know you have them. The good news is, with better prevention, half of heart disease deaths can be avoided.

2. African American men have the highest cancer death rate of any racial/ethnic group in the U.S. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer affecting African American men, followed by lung and colorectal. Overall the cancer death rate for African Americans is 25 percent higher, and African American men are more than two times as likely to die from prostate and colorectal cancer. Despite their high risks, nearly half of African American men do not have a provider they see regularly, which helps explain why they are more likely to be first diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer.

What you can do. Meet with your provider to assess your lifestyle, family history and cancer risks. Roughly 20 percent of cancers could be avoided through healthy nutrition, exercise and weight loss. Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, so if you smoke, quit. Beyond prevention, screenings are key to early detection and better outcomes. Because African Americans are more likely to develop prostate cancer, begin screening at age 40. For colorectal cancer, schedule screenings beginning at age 50. Thanks to better prevention and early detection, the mortality gap for African Americans with cancer is shrinking.

3. Approximately 2.7 million African Americans have diabetes — and at least one-third of them don't know it. African Americans are 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes and more than four times as likely to be diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. We are also significantly more likely to suffer from blindness, kidney disease and amputations because of the condition. Shockingly, African Americans today have a 50 percent chance of developing type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.

What you can do. The good news is diabetes is treatable and preventable. Eating a healthier diet, getting regular exercise and losing extra weight can go a long way in reversing diabetes symptoms. If you are the one out of every three adults who has prediabetes, there is a 90 percent chance you have no idea. Getting regular medical checkups can reduce your diabetes risk by 60 percent.

4.Nearly 40 percent of African-American men are obese, and nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight. Obesity contributes to health conditions that disproportionately affect African Americans, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. Obesity-related conditions are the second leading cause of preventable deaths, yet many African Americans live with this risk factor their whole lives.

What you can do. For some who are struggling with weight problems, adopting a healthier lifestyle that incorporates exercise and better nutrition can tip the scales in your favor. For those who suffer with obesity, the American Heart Association recommends a medically supervised weight loss program that involves eating fewer calories, exercising for 30 minutes most days and learning skills to change unhealthy behaviors. Your provider can help you devise a plan that is right for you.

African American men seem to have an uphill battle when it comes to maintaining good health, but it’s far from impossible. Understanding risk factors for the most threatening medical conditions and actively engaging in preventive care has proven to improve health outcomes, and we are seeing a gradual shift in African American health as a result. The overall death rate for African Americans fell 25 percent between 1999 and 2015, and this trend will continue as more men understand their health risks and take proactive steps to live healthier lives. In honor of National Men’s Health Month, take stock of your health today and make changes that could literally save your life.