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Hard Truths About African Americans and Chronic Inflammation

man laying in a hospital bed sick

Inflammation can be your ally or nemesis.

Acute inflammation is your friend. It manifests when the immune system sends a surge of inflammatory cells to trap a foreign agent that attacks the body, like a virus, bacteria or bodily injury. Acute inflammation occurs as swelling, bruising, redness or pain. Any of those outcomes work to heal damaged tissue.

Chronic inflammation, however, is your adversary. It occurs when the immune system sends out inflammatory cells even when your body isn’t in any danger. This low-grade inflammation is often silent and doesn’t produce the conspicuous symptoms that occur with the acute type. It occurs when people’s bodies feel threatened for prolonged periods of time. When people are in this state, they become susceptible to a range of life-threatening illnesses.

Thanks to environmental stressors and physical health, Black people in the U.S. are in the crosshairs of chronic inflammation and the diseases associated with it.    

That’s why Black Men’s Health has uncovered these hard truths about African Americans and chronic inflammation.

Diseases from chronic inflammation are the biggest cause of death in the world. 

Heart disease, stroke, and COPD are the three leading causes of death worldwide, and diabetes is the ninth deadliest condition, reports the World Health Organization (WHO). What’s more, three out of five people around the globe die from illnesses that come from chronic inflammation. This statistic also includes certain cancers and kidney disease.

Those numbers are expected to climb.

The National Library of Medicine states that diseases associated with chronic inflammation are projected to “increase persistently for the next 30 years in the United States.”

The death rates for heart disease, stroke and diabetes for African Americans are higher than that of Whites. In 2018, Blacks were 30% more likely to die from heart disease than Whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In that same year, they were twice as likely as Whites to die from diabetes. When it comes to stroke, Black people are 70% more likely to die from it than Whites overall.

The high obesity rates of Black people are why so many have chronic inflammation.

In 2018, Black people were 1.3 times more likely to be obese compared to Whites. Compared to other groups, African American women have the highest rates of obesity overall with four out of five of them overweight or obese. Here’s where the bad inflammation comes into play: Being obese can either predispose someone to chronic inflammation or that same inflammation can lead to obesity. Of course, being obese can also put you at risk for a range of health conditions including heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes and some cancers, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Studies show that racism, along with a variety of environmental factors, can lead to low-level inflammation.

While environmental factors such as loneliness, grief and economic difficulties can produce elevated levels of inflammation, there is significant evidence that racism and oppression are significant contributors. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities surveyed nearly 400 African American women and found that persistent exposure to discrimination was related to inflammation. It also revealed that the elevated inflammation in participants was associated with a variety of diagnosed chronic diseases. This smaller 2019 study concluded that racism may account for as much as 50% of heightened inflammation among African Americans.

Here’s what you can do to address chronic inflammation.

Vitamin supplements, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and steroid injections are used to treat inflammation. However, there are some lifestyle changes you can make right now to address this issue.

You can eat foods that have anti-inflammatory properties like tomatoes and olive oil; oily fish like salmon or mackerel and leafy greens like spinach and kale. It also means laying off the fried foods, cured meats, sugar, pastries and highly refined oils and trans fats.

Exercising three to five times per week is also recommended. Eliminating smoking completely and reducing your alcohol intake also helps. For more information about inflammation and ways to treat it, visit this link.

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