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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THINKSTOCK

I had my annual physical examination a few days ago, and upon checking my vitals—my blood pressure score, as I’m telling everybody, was 118/72—my doctor, a 60-something white woman, jokingly remarked, “Love it when my peeps are doing well.”

And though in many other settings her attempt at colloquial bonding might have been met with a raised eyebrow, that wasn’t my response in this case. Her invocation of the familiar expression “peeps” was really an acknowledgment that she and I have built a level of trust between patient and doctor: She’s been my primary care physician for more than five years. 

But sadly, too many black men, even those with adequate health care coverage, fail to develop such relationships with their doctors. For far too many black men—with or without health insurance—their primary care physician is an emergency room attendant.

The health status of black men in this country is well-known. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, the percentage of black folk in poor health outnumbers that of their white peers, a reality that’s reflected in numbers like black male obesity rates and the percentage of black men with hypertension, or high blood pressure, in comparison with white males. (Black women’s rates for both conditions are much higher.) These stats reflect an increased incidence of chronic and preventable conditions that could be addressed through regular physical activity and better eating habits.

Yet as researchers, led by Vanderbilt University’s Derek Griffith, have shown in a series of studies published over the past three years, there are numerous obstacles to black men being able to engage the kinds of behaviors necessary to address what, over time, become debilitating diseases. Ironically, one of these is stress associated with trying to maintain their roles as “responsible” black men.

“African-American men,” says Griffith, “have conceptualized being ‘healthy’ as being able to fulfill social roles such as holding a job, providing for their family, protecting and teaching their children and belonging to a social network.”

But not necessarily taking care of their health.

Because of the sheer exhaustion associated with the daily stressors that go along with being black in America—often described as micro-aggressions—physical exercise is often a last option. And as Griffith notes, food and alcohol (and, I might add, reality TV) tend to be our choices for self-medication.

I am one of those men. For almost two decades I’ve suffered from sleep apnea and hypertension, though the latter was largely undiagnosed until six years ago. My career “grind” and my day-to-day job as a husband and father always took precedence over my health. The grind also became my ideal excuse for not taking time off to go to the doctor. Indeed, many black men seem to be motivated by their concept of the “strong black man”—as if it’s some badge of honor to ignore aches, pains and clear changes in how our bodies feel and function until it’s too late and we find ourselves flat on our asses.

Given that so many men are socialized to be in control of their own so-called destinies, regular trips to the doctor present the possibility of having to confront issues that might be out of our control. As a result, we often get to the point where preventable diseases are no longer so. For me, then, the bettering of my own health has been directly connected to getting over this apprehension and becoming willing to see a doctor on a regular basis—and to trust her assessments.