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May 11, 2018

Do These 5 Things to Help African American Moms Live Healthier

Why Women’s Health is Not Just a Women’s Issue

James LaVelle Dickens, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP
Captain, U.S. Pubic Health Service Commissioned Corps

It’s May, which means many of you are celebrating the moms in your life, including siblings, neighbors, aunts, in-laws and teachers. In many ways, moms are the foundation of our communities, serving as beacons of strength and perseverance. When it comes to health, however, these same women tend to put their own needs last, and that presents a real problem for the rest of us.

It’s no accident that National Women’s Health Week kicks off every year on Mother’s Day, serving as a poignant reminder that women’s health should be everyone’s priority. Arguably, it should really be Mothers’ Day, shifting the apostrophe one small space to represent our collective appreciation for this important demographic, often fighting quiet or unknown health battles that in one way or another shave years off their precious lives.

This is especially true for African American women, who face a steep uphill climb when it comes to staying well. Health disparities that help explain why their life expectancy is 3.5 years shorter than white counterparts are largely to blame, but collectively we can help change this nagging fate. Starting this month, celebrate the African American women in your life by doing these five things to promote better health all year long.

Underscore the gravity of weight issues. 82 percent of African American women are overweight or obese, and that extra weight leads to all sorts of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Worse, women tend to have a harder time losing weight, so make this daunting challenge easier by giving the gift of exercise, even if it’s just free time to walk around the block, and consider overhauling the family dinner menu for better all-around health.     

Take heart trouble to heart. Heart disease is our leading killer, and African Americans develop it earlier in life and are more likely to die from it. Fortunately, losing weight, controlling high blood pressure, quitting smoking, exercising and limiting stress are all ways to lower heart disease risk. If you know a ticker that may be a ticking time bomb, suggest a visit with their provider to identify important and potentially life-saving steps to clean up their heart health.

Make stroke a women’s issue. Many people don’t realize women are at a greater risk for stroke, or that there are female-only risk factors that help explain why 55,000 more women experience a stroke every year. Preeclampsia, birth control, hormone replacement and pregnancy can increase risk on top of gender-neutral concerns like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, so encourage women to take stock of these lesser known indicators. The good news is 80 percent of strokes are preventable – spread the word!  

Sound the diabetes alarm. African American women are twice as likely to develop diabetes, and by age 55, one in four will be diagnosed. Weight plays a major role in the number of cases – nearly 90 percent are overweight or obese. Everyone should be tested for diabetes starting at age 40, and sooner if they are higher risk. Nearly 30 million Americans have diabetes, and one in four have no idea, so actively promote screenings of this largely preventable, treatable condition in your circles.

Give the gift of sleep. Ask any mom what she wants for Mother’s Day and chances are she’ll say more sleep. Less than half of moms get the recommended shut eye each night, and remarkably, each child in the house increases the odds of insufficient sleep by 50 percent. Since lack of sleep leads to much bigger health problems like obesity and heart disease, the perfect way to celebrate mom may be to give the gift of rest, and not just on Mother’s Day.  

Women’s health is more than a women’s issue, and African American women in particular need our help. By focusing on these five things, we can celebrate women by promoting healthier lifestyles, and in the process, ensure the moms in our lives live longer, better lives.