Why Are Black Adults at Greater Risk of Death From Heart Disease? New Study Reveals Social Factors Are Responsible

Heart Disease Concept

Black Americans face a 54% higher cardiovascular disease mortality rate than White Americans, with a recent study attributing this disparity to social factors rather than traditional clinical factors. The research underscores the significance of social determinants of health, highlighting the need for societal and community interventions to address these disparities.

African Americans have a 54% higher risk of succumbing to cardiovascular disease compared to their White counterparts, even though there has been a significant decrease in cardiovascular disease-related deaths across the country.

A recent study by Tulane University, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, discovered that these racial disparities are more linked to social determinants like unemployment, limited income, and absence of a partner rather than previously identified factors like high blood pressure and obesity.

“For so many years we have focused on smoking, diet, physical activity, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol – and we know those are important for the prevention of cardiovascular disease – but it surprised me that the Black-White difference in cardiovascular disease mortality is mainly due to social factors,” said Dr. Jiang He, lead author and Joseph S. Copes Chair in Epidemiology at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Using health data from more than 50,000 adults, the study examined the association between clinical risk factors (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol), lifestyle risk factors (smoking, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and too little or too much sleep), and social risk factors (unemployment, low family income, food insecurity, low education, no regular access to healthcare, no private health insurance, not owning a home, and not married nor living with a partner) with cardiovascular mortality.

When the study adjusted for age and sex, Black adults had a 54% higher cardiovascular disease mortality rate compared to White adults. That dropped to 34% and 31% after adjusting for clinical and lifestyle risk factors, respectively. However, the racial difference in cardiovascular mortality completely dissipated after adjusting for social risk factors.

“When we adjusted for lifestyle and clinical risk factors, the Black-White disparity in cardiovascular disease mortality was diminished but still persisted.” He said. “However, after adjusting for social risk factors, this racial difference totally disappeared.”

This study follows another recent Tulane study which similarly found Black Americans are 59% more likely to die prematurely than White Americans. That disparity was reduced to zero after adjusting for these social factors, also called social determinants of health.

Social determinants of health, while a relatively new framework, were emphasized by the CDC’s Healthy People 2030 initiative as eight areas of life critical to health and well-being.

For He, the findings emphasize the importance of well-paying jobs, health care access, and social support that can come from a family or tight-knit community.

Going forward, He is putting these findings into practice with a program that aims to address hypertension in New Orleans’ Black communities by partnering with local churches to provide health screening training and free medication.

“It is essential to develop novel community-based interventions for reducing cardiovascular disease risk in Black populations,” He said.

Reference: “Social, Behavioral, and Metabolic Risk Factors and Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Disease Mortality in U.S. Adults” by Jiang He, Joshua D. Bundy, Siyi Geng, Ling Tian, Hua He, Xingyan Li, Keith C. Ferdinand, Amanda H. Anderson, Kirsten S. Dorans, Ramachandran S. Vasan, Katherine T. Mills and Jing Chen, September 2023, Annals of Internal Medicine.
DOI: 10.7326/M23-0507

The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

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