African-American Women's Health: Prevention Is Key
by Yvonne T. Green
When thinking about the health of African-American women today, many challenges still remain. Although African-American women have seen their health improve over the last century, as have other women, certain issues continue to dominate the scene. The good news is that many of these issues can be prevented. Better health through prevention. Its not a new message, and its not a message only for African-American women or women in general, but for everyone. Prevention means taking steps to stay healthy before symptoms or disease occur. Prevention means making healthy choices during every stage of your life in every area of your life, including work, home and play.
When looking at some of the leading causes of death for African-American women
for 1998, we see heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease (including stroke),
diabetes mellitus, injuries, and HIV infection. Most of these conditions can
be prevented or at a minimum your risk for getting the condition can be decreased
if you take appropriate steps. Taking steps to improve your health isnt
complicated, expensive, or painful. But the steps do require you to be persistent,
to pay attention, to be resilient, and to know yourself. They require consistent
action on your part, but with this action comes significant lifetime reward.
What really gets us in trouble? For the most part, its the four Ss:
being stout (heavy, obese, or fat), sedentary (not getting enough physical activity),
smoking (tobacco), and sex. By addressing these issues, we can prevent or reduce
our chances of having heart disease, certain cancers, high blood pressure, depression,
diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and other conditions and diseases.
Here are a few steps to getting and staying healthy and celebrating life every
Know Yourself and Your Risks. Our parents and ancestors helped determine
what we look like and the likelihood for certain conditions and diseases. How
and what we do in our day-to-day life also plays a part in determining our health.
Know yourself and your family and personal history. What conditions or diseases
are common in your family, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer? Do your
parents, grandparents, siblings, or other close relatives have any health conditions
or diseases that you need to know about so that you can take appropriate steps
to reduce your risk for getting those same conditions or diseases? What choices
and chances do you take or make on a daily basis that might improve or hinder
your health? Do you smoke, drink, wear seat belts, exercise, work in a hazardous
area, or participate in extreme sports? Knowing is key to helping you make the
right decisions to protect your health.
Eat a Nutritious Diet. Its not complicated. Eat more fruits and vegetables every day. Reduce the amount of fat and calories in your diet. One word of caution: just because something is fat free or low fat doesnt mean you can eat as much as you want. Many low-fat or nonfat foods are also high in calories. Eat everything in moderation.
Get Regular Exams and Screenings. The science is not available yet to tell us how to prevent all disease, but getting annual screenings and exams helps to detect potential problems early. Early detection means finding a health problem in its early stage, before signs or symptoms develop, and before it can cause serious problems. Too many women wait too long to get diagnosed and therefore decrease their chances of getting the best treatment available. Several screenings and tests that are recommended include a mammogram for breast cancer, pap smear for cervical cancer, cholesterol screening, blood pressure check, blood sugar screening for diabetes, and a colorectal screening for colorectal cancer if you are 50 or over. Also, get prenatal care if you are pregnant to prevent complications and ensure a safe and health pregnancy, labor and delivery.
Be Safe - Protect Yourself. What comes to mind when you think about safety and protecting yourself? Remember, health and safety go hand in hand to prevent injury and disease. It should include everything from making sure you have a working smoke alarm in your home to wearing seat belts. Its also about starting slow and not overdoing it when you first start a new sport or physical activity. It includes sun safety to prevent skin cancer, wearing helmets to prevent brain injury while biking, preparing food properly to prevent foodborne illnesses, safely storing guns to prevent injuries and deaths, and using latex condoms consistently and correctly to reduce or prevent the change of getting a STD. Gonorrhea and syphilis are reported more often in African-Americans. The proportion of all AIDS cases reported among adult and adolescent women more than tripled, from 7% in 1985 to 23% in 1999. The epidemic has increased most dramatically among women of color. African American and Hispanic women together represent less than one-fourth of all U.S. women, yet they account for more than three-fourths (77%) of AIDS cases reported to date among women in our country. In 1999 alone, women of color represented an even higher proportion of cases. While AIDS-related deaths among women were decreasing as of 1998, largely as a result of recent advances in HIV treatment, HIV/AIDS remains among the leading causes of death for U.S. women aged 25-44. And among African American women in this same age group, AIDS was the third leading case of death in 1998. Abstinence is the only way to prevent STD and pregnancy 100% of the time.
Get Regular Exercise. It doesn't take a lot of time, but it does take commitment - about 20-30 minutes most days of the week of moderate physical activity. Being healthy is a lifestyle choice. Start slowly, work up to a satisfactory level and don't overdo it. You can develop one routine or you can do something different every day. The goal of exercise is to be healthy! Find fun, interesting and satisfying ways to stay in shape, to feel good, and to be healthy.
Be Smoke Free. You know that smoking causes cancer and chronic lung disease like bronchitis and emphysema. You know that smoking is addictive. But you might not know that smoking is also associated with reducing a womans ability to get pregnant, having an earlier menopause, and increasing the risk of pregnancy complications like premature birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth. And you dont have to be a smoker. When other people smoke around you, also called second-hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke, you can develop health problems as well. There are immediate benefits when you stop smoking. Your heartbeat slows to normal, your lungs begin to clear and repair themselves, and you smell better. When it comes to life in general, you already have enough going on. You dont need to add heart disease, cancer, and other problems to the list. Dont smoke.
Health means freedom. Freedom means having the full opportunity to live the life you want to lead and to do the things you want to do. It means having more energy, time, and opportunities. Make the decision to live healthier and start today. Prevention works, and prevention works for women.
Yvonne T. Green, R.N., C.N.M., M.S.N., is the associate director for womens health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Return to Women's News and Narratives Fall 2001