It Takes a Village to Keep Black Men Healthy

African-American men—and those who love them—have to work together to combat preventable diseases like high blood pressure.

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At the same time, I’m aware that as a middle-class professional with affordable health care, I possess a lifestyle that affords me options that many blue-collar working men simply don’t have. 

While issues of access across race and class are real with regards to health issues, Griffith and his team note that black male peer groups are also a critical aspect of healthy lifestyles. Importantly, examples of both active and inactive black men can be motivators in a decision to have a more active, healthier lifestyle.

In my case, sadly, it was the example of too many friends passing on in their late 40s and early 50s that proved to be significant inspiration for me to address my health issues. Yet there were also the examples of an older colleague who played baseball into his 40s and my best friend’s father, now in his late 80s, who played organized softball well into his 60s.

Along with the struggles that many black men have with exercise, my daily time constraints led to unhealthy eating habits, including skipping meals like breakfast and lunch and instead choosing unhealthy snack foods, high in salt, fat and sugar. I can recall when I was at my heaviest, 15 years ago, and was substituting two doughnuts and a soda for a healthy lunch.

In goes without saying that women in the lives of black men serve as a critical source of encouragement. Many of the men in Griffith’s study noted that they had far less control over what they ate when they were at home—when, in other words, their wives, girlfriends, daughters and mothers cooked meals for them. Indeed, my most dramatic weight loss (I’m nearly 100 pounds lighter than I was when my oldest daughter was born) occurred when my wife of 22 years took over the cooking.

Yet as black women face their own challenges—including often paying more attention to the health of their children, aging parents and partners at the expense of their own health—it is incumbent upon black men to take more responsibility for maintaining their health.

One example of being more responsible is simply being willing to share. There are friends of mine whom I’ve encouraged to have their sleep studied when they reported what I interpreted as signs of sleep apnea. Posting my own blood pressure score on social media is less about oversharing and more about encouraging others to know their own blood pressure and PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, number. I wish someone had suggested to me a decade ago that I purchase a portable blood pressure device so that I could monitor my rate on a daily basis.

We’ve all heard the adage that it takes a village to raise children. But in this instance, it also takes a village to address the health crisis among black men.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.