Generic image
Thinkstock

Add it to the list of slavery and Jim Crow’s legacies: the tendency to look after other people’s well-being at the expense of ourselves. But 150 years after the “peculiar institution’s” end, many black women tend to their jobs, their children and their partners—even their hair—before taking care of their own health.

The tragic consequence of this hyper focus on others and consequent self-neglect is that far too many black women experience health challenges—from anxiety and depression, to obesity, to hypertension and diabetes—that deprive them of joy, derail their careers, undermine their desire to live purposeful lives and undermine their loved ones’ emotional and economic security—often at a disastrously young age. Some women learn the heartbreaking lesson that their loved ones expect the woman to take care of them even when the woman is ailing.

April is Minority Health Awareness Month, a great time to turn over a new leaf and recommit to better self-care. Follow the “airplane rule”—put your own mask on first—so you can take care of your loved ones for the long term. As springtime blossoms, turn over a new leaf by incorporating more healthy habits into your lifestyle, as well as making appointments to obtain the screenings below.

Too Well-Dressed to Be Stressed? 

Research shows that many black women mistake looking good for being healthy. But being dressed to the nines doesn’t preclude a woman from experiencing, say, intimate-partner violence, depression, HIV, hypertension or even heart disease—all of which undermine her well-being.

Advertisement

Being healthy involves taking great care of yourself over a lifetime, not just having a spa day or a medical intervention when you’re run down or experience a health crisis. Merely by following these basic habits, you can reduce your risk of many chronic diseases:

Get at least seven hours of sleep. Being sleep-deprived can increase your risk of weight gain, diabetes, hypertension and mood disorders and shorten your life. Black people get less sleep than any other Americans, with black women averaging slightly less than six hours a night. Avoid working the night shift, if possible. Also strongly consider taking the TV and other electronics out of your bedroom.

Feed yourself high-quality nutrients. There are no good or bad foods; however, some foods provide your body with higher-quality fuel than others. The more nourishing foods tend to look more like they appear in nature. Think corn on the cob rather than corn chips.

Advertisement

Drink enough water. Your body is composed primarily of water, so replenish it. Take your weight, divide it in half and drink that many ounces of fluid, preferably wate, every day.

Get a move on. Whether it’s Zumba, running or your Thursday-night bowling league, keep your body moving. You can reduce your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and perhaps even dementia merely by reducing the amount of time you spend sitting.

Lessen your stress. A growing body of research shows that chronic stress can lead to a whole host of health problems from depression and anxiety to weight problems to heart disease.

Advertisement

Monitor your weight. Most black women aspire to be a healthier weight—a size 10 or a 12—than the mainstream media promotes. And even though many of us embrace a curvy figure, most black women are overweight by the medical definition—that is to say, not by our beauty standard—meaning our risk of chronic disease is elevated. All of the factors mentioned above can help you keep the pounds down.

Get Checkups for a Lifetime

Another important aspect of self-care is obtaining periodic preventive health screenings. The Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to offer women annual preventive health screenings—think tests, contraception, breast-feeding support, tests for sexually transmitted infections and more—as well as yearly well-woman visits—such as a full physical checkup, immunizations and preventive screenings for diseases—without having to pay a copay or coinsurance.

Advertisement

In addition to your annual well-woman exam, be sure to obtain these health screenings over the course of your lifetime:

Teens

Well-girl physical exam: Every girl should see her health care provider annually (search here to see what her checkup should include year by year). To reduce their risk of cervical cancer, girls should get the HPV vaccine as preteens, before they become sexually active.

Advertisement

Dental exam: Ask your daughter’s doctor, nurse or dentist what frequency is best.

Gynecological baseline exam: Take your daughter to the gynecologist before she becomes sexually active to identify how healthy her reproductive system is. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends that most girls have their first gynecological exam between ages 13 and 15; however, many girls are sexually active long before then.

STIs and HIV: Whether chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis or HIV, an epidemic of sexually transmitted infections exists both in black America and among adolescents and young adults. And while young men and women experience STIs equally, when STIs go untreated, women are more likely to experience long-term consequences. Make sure your daughter’s gynecologist screens her.

Advertisement

18-39

In addition to your annual well-woman exam, follow these screening guidelines:

Breast-cancer screening: Discuss your risk of breast cancer with your doctor or nurse. Black women tend to get breast cancer less often than white women but are more likely to die from it. We are also more likely to develop a virulent form of breast cancer, called triple negative, at a young age. So beginning in our 20s, it is important for black women to examine our breasts monthly—no matter what leading cancer organizations recommend—to become accustomed to what our breasts normally feel like. If your risk is high, talk to your health care provider about the pros and cons of getting a baseline mammogram during your 30s.

Advertisement

Cervical-cancer screening: Although differences exist (pdf), leading authorities state that women should get a cervical-cancer screening, or Pap test, every three years beginning at age 21, assuming that they have a cervix. This may not be early enough for black women—particularly those who became sexually active early—since an STI epidemic exists in black communities. After age 30, get a cervical-cancer screening and Pap test every five years, but only if you have a cervix (some women have the type of hysterectomies that remove their cervix; disgracefully, some doctors still test them for cervical cancer). But given black women’s elevated risk, ask your gynecologist if you should get one more often, even if you are married.

Cholesterol test: Beginning at age 20, ask your doctor or nurse if your risk of developing heart disease is higher than normal and, therefore, how often you need to get a cholesterol test.

Dental exam: Ask your doctor, nurse or dentist what frequency is best.

Diabetes screening: Discuss your diabetes risk with your doctor or nurse. If your blood pressure is higher than 135/80 or if you take medicine for high blood pressure, be sure to get screened.

Advertisement

Comprehensive eye exam: Ask your doctor, nurse or dentist what frequency is best.

Hearing test: Get your first test at 18 and repeat every 10 years.

Mental-health screening: Discuss this with your doctor or nurse.

Skin cancer: Yes, black people do get skin cancer. Beginning at age 20, remind your doctor or nurse to include a mole exam in your annual checkup.

Advertisement

STIs and HIV: Whether chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, an epidemic of sexually transmitted infections exists both among adolescents and young adults and among black Americans—and that’s not to mention our elevated risk of acquiring HIV. Get tested at least once a year; more often if you change sex partners. To protect their fetuses, all pregnant women should get STI- and HIV-tested.

40-49

In addition to your annual well-woman exam, follow the guidelines for younger women and follow these screening recommendations:

Bone-density screening: Discuss your risk of osteoporosis, the bone-breaking disease.

Advertisement

Breast cancer screening: Continue to examine your breasts monthly no matter what the leading cancer organizations recommend. You may also want to start getting mammograms during your 40s, rather than having your first mammogram at 50, the current recommendation.

Comprehensive eye exam: Get a baseline exam at 40, then a checkup every two to four years, as your doctor or nurse advises.

STDs and HIV: Teens and young adults are not the only ones to get HIV; an epidemic exists among middle-aged and older black women as well. Whether or not you are married, get HIV-tested at least once a year and if you change sex partners. To protect their fetuses, all pregnant women should get STI- and HIV-tested.

Advertisement

50-64

In addition to your annual well-woman exam, follow the guidelines for younger women and follow these screening recommendations:

Bone-density screening: Discuss your risk of osteoporosis, the bone-breaking disease.

Advertisement

Breast-cancer screening: Discuss your risk of breast cancer with your doctor or nurse. If you are not already getting a mammogram every two years, now is the time to start. Also examine your breasts monthly no matter what the leading cancer organizations recommend.

Cervical-cancer screening: Have a cervical-cancer screening and Pap test every five years if you have not had your cervix surgically removed.

Colorectal-cancer screening: Start getting screened at age 50. There are several different kinds of tests: fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy. Ask your doctor which is right for you.

Advertisement

Hepatitis C: Everyone born between 1945 and 1965 should get a one-time blood test for a liver disease called hepatitis C.

STIs and HIV: Young people are not the only ones to get STIs—think chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis—or HIV. Indeed, of the new HIV infections among those 55 and older, 15 percent occur among black women. Whether or not you are married, if you are sexually active, get HIV-tested at least once a year; more often if you change sexual partners.  

65 and Up

In addition to your annual well-woman exam, follow the screening guidelines for women ages 50-64.  

Advertisement

Editor’s note: The good-health guide for men will be posted next week.

Philadelphia-based writer Hilary Beard is co-author of Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life and Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide, both of which have won an NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.