Heart Failure in African Americans

Heart failure in African Americans

Heart failure in African-Americans occurs more often and is more deadly.  African Americans have a significantly higher risk and earlier onset of heart failure and heart-related death compared to all other populations in the United States.  In fact, African Americans are two and a half times more likely to die from heart failure than Whites, and it occurs at an earlier age.  Much of the added occurrence of heart failure can be attributed to poor blood pressure control and being on the right medications to better control your blood pressure (take a look at my article “Are you on the right blood pressure medicine?”).  But there are also other causes to know.

The “heart failure” term is not the best (in my opinion) to describe the situation with the heart because it gives an impression of impending and unavoidable “failure” of the heart.  In reality, people are admitted to hospitals across the nation with the diagnosis of “heart failure” and then are given medications that readily reverses the “failure.” The term “congestive” heart failure is also used and reflects the situation of too much fluid for the heart to process. The “congestion” in the heart effects its proper function like the congestion in your nose when you have a cold.  In congestive heart failure, “water pills” and other medications are given and the “extra” fluid is flushed (urinated) out.

Heart Failure in African AmericansThe problem with heart failure is complicated, but for our purposes can be considered a combination of

  1. too much fluid in the body
  2. too much heart muscle (from high blood pressure)
  3. abnormal squeezing (or relaxation) of the heart muscles

The occurrence of heart failure, although not as ominous as it sounds in the short term, is a sign of a serious heart condition that can bring premature death.  Like many other health conditions, heart failure occurs more frequently in African Americans.  The major drivers to this racial disparity is a higher incidence of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, physical inactivity, and smoking.  To see if you are at risk, let’s review each risk factor.

Obesity

A significant number of African Americans are obese by a number of standards.  A strict criteria starts obesity at a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 30. Your body mass index tries to predict an ideal weight based on your height.  Look at the chart below and find your height on the left and then tract across to your weight.  If you are in the red, many will say you are  “obese.”

Heart Failure in African Americans

You and I both know that African Americans culturally prefer being “meatier” and many African Americans in the red areas are completely happy with their weight and size.  Others have suggested a different (more racially appropriate) chart be used for African Americans and other racial groups, but there is not widespread acceptance.

High Blood Pressure

Heart Failure in African AmericansHigh blood pressure (also called hypertension) that is untreated is the biggest risk for having heart failure in African Americans.  Having your blood pressure controlled to less than 130 over less than 80 is a huge step in the right direction. And being on the correct medicines for the treatment of high blood pressure and watching how salt impacts your health is important as well.

Diabetes

Heart Failure in African AmericansType 2 Diabetes is the most common type in African Americans and occurs with an 80 percent greater chance.  Getting control of blood sugars with medications and diet adjustments is critical to avoiding poor control that could lead to heart failure. Shooting for a HbA1c near 7.0 or below is an indication of good control.  There are other important differences in the medical care of diabetes in African Americans and you can review them HERE.

Physical Activity

A lack of physical activity is bad for your health and that alone can be a risk factor for heart failure.  Studies have consistently shown that physical activity reduces risks of heart disease, stroke, and heart failure.  By walking, running, biking, dancing and more you can make great progress in decreasing the risk for heart failure.  Set a schedule, track your steps, and get started making the rest of your life more health drama-free.

Smoking

Heart Failure in African AmericansA recent study found that “cigarette smoking sharply increases the risk of heart failure in black men and women.”  The study that looked at thousands of African Americans (both smokers and non-smokers) and found that:

  • smokers had a larger heart size (which is associated with heart failure)
  • smokers had a lower heart muscle strength (which is associated with heart failure)
  • smokers had a greater risk for needing to be hospitalized for heart failure

All of this is in addition to the increased risk for diabetes due to smoking (See “Heavy Smokers at Higher Risk for Diabetes”) and the increased cancer and circulation problems.

Let’s get real . . .

Heart failure is real and touches almost ever African American family.  We all know family members with diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and smokers.  They are on the road to heart failure and because they are related to us . . . we are at risk too.

It’s time to get serious about preventing it.

Heart Failure in African Americans

Heavy Smokers at Higher Risk for Diabetes

African American smokers have higher risk for diabetes

A large study consisting of over five thousand African Americans found that those African Americans who smoke more than a pack of cigarettes in a day were at increased risk for diabetes.  This ground-breaking news was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. African American smokers have higher risk for diabetesThe study group included current heavy smokers, former smokers, and "never" smokers, all of whom were African Americans, and followed them over the course of  several visits. At the end of the study, they looked to see who had developed diabetes. Both former and non-smokers had similar occurrences . . . which is good news for people who have stopped smoking. African Americans who smoked more than a pack a day of cigarettes had a much higher occurrence of developing diabetes (up to 40 percent higher!!). The increased smoking was associated with "impaired pancreatic beta cell function." The pancreas is where insulin is made and proper insulin secretion is how sugars are absorbed into the body. The researchers go on to say:
"Although smoking cessation should be encouraged for everyone, certain high‐risk groups such as blacks who are disproportionately affected by diabetes mellitus should be targeted for cessation strategies."

Are you at risk for diabetes?

Being over-weight and having a strong family history of diabetes puts many African Americans at increased risk for developing this disease. Now we can add heavy smoking to the list! While African Americans have lower teenage smoking rates, they have high adult rates, longer smoking duration, and lower cessation rates when compared to Whites.  Almost half (42%) of newly diagnosed patients with diabetes were African American who smoked whereas only 29% (less than a third) that were White smoked. African American smokers have higher risk for diabetesIn general, smoking is associated with a lower body weight so many African Americans resist stopping smoking because of a fear of weight gain.  Many also fail to realize the smoking addiction aspect.  But in reality the increased smoking actually increases the risk for diabetes.  Smoking is known to produce "pot bellies" which in medical circles is known as "visceral adiposity" and that type of obesity (like in the photo) greatly increases the risk for diabetes. If diabetes "runs in your family" and you or someone you love is smoking, tell them about this new information and how stopping now can actually DECREASE their risk for diabetes!! Need more information about Diabetes in African Americans? Click HERE African American smokers have higher risk for diabetes

Diabetes Differences in African Americans

Diabetes Differences in African Americans

There has been some startling discoveries lately in the differences in how diabetes is diagnosed and treated in African Americans. Because of genetic nuances that we normally may ignore as insignificant, hundreds of thousands of African Americans remain  under-diagnosed and under-treated for diabetes.

Diabetes already occurs at an unusually high rate in African Americans and we are 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed than White Americans.  Of those with diabetes, there is a higher tendency for organ damage (heart disease, kidney failure, or blindness, for example) than Whites.  The prevalence of visual problems, kidney problems, leg amputations, and overall hospitalizations are dramatically higher in African Americans with diabetes.

The CDC reports that African American men die at over twice the rate of any other race or gender group from diabetes. It was also found that these differences were not solely due to the African American diet, genetic differences played a part as well.

Diabetes is diagnosed at an earlier age (median age 49 vs. 55.4 in White Americans) and this earlier age is significant because the development of diabetes complications is directly related to both blood sugar control as well as the total time a person has the disease.  By getting diabetes earlier, there is more time to get complications.  Make sense??

Diabetes Differences in African AmericansMost research dealing with the increased diabetes in African Americans points to increased insulin resistance when compared to White Americans. This means your body has insulin but is “resistant” to its normal function.

A recent study of over five thousand African Americans curiously showed that heavy smoking (more than a pack of cigarettes a day) significantly increased their risk for diabetes by worsening the insulin resistance.  Former smokers and people who never smoked had a much lower risk for diabetes compared to the heavy smokers.

HbA1c (Hemoglobin-A-One-See), the blood test used to diagnose and track diabetes, is generally a point higher in African Americans (8.9 in White Americans and 9.8 in African Americans), and when controlling for socioeconomic status, quality of care, self-management behaviors, and access, African Americans still have higher HbA1c levels.

Another study by Saaddine and colleagues looked at younger patients age 5 to 24 years and found that African American youths consistently had higher HbA1c levels even without diabetes.

HbA1c is Different in African Americans

In all, HbA1c value differences in African Americans essentially equates to a 0.4% difference (higher) for glucose matched White American patients.  So a HbA1c of 7.0, the normal threshold to diagnose diabetes, is really 7.4 in African Americans.  Diabetes should have been diagnosed when the HbA1c was 6.6.   Put simply, the accepted relationship between HbA1c and the coinciding blood glucose used by doctors and laboratories is different for African Americans.

“The relationship between mean blood glucose and HbA1c may not be the same in all people. Indeed, the published regression line from the “A1c-Derived Average Glucose” (ADAG) Study demonstrated a wide range of average glucose levels for individuals with the same HbA1c levels.” 

Diabetes Differences in African Americans

If these facts aren’t confusing enough, another study found the HbA1c levels are “less dependable” when they are “near normal” in African Americans.  High and low HbA1c levels tend to be much more accurate when estimating the average blood sugars.

Because of the limitations of HbA1c measurements in some situations and the racial differences discussed above, some of the patients with a HbA1c level between 5.5% and 7% will clearly have diabetes, and others will not.

Another curiosity with HbA1c has to do with patients with a sickle cell trait:

“Among African Americans from 2 large, well-established (studies), participants with sickle cell trait had lower levels of HbA1c at any given concentration of fasting compared with participants without sickle cell trait. These findings suggest that HbA1c may systematically underestimate past glycemia in (African American) patients with sickle cell trait and may require further evaluation.” 

Given that one in ten African Americans have sickle cell trait, it is important to consider their trait when interpreting the results of a HbA1c.  In the end, people with sickle cell trait can be tricky to diagnose diabetes.  Many doctors neglect to ask if someone has sickle cell trait because, outside of genetic counseling before having children, there has conventionally been little impact on other disorders.  Is your doctor aware of this genetically-based difference?

More Genetic Differences . . .

A recent study of over 160,00 patients looked at specific genes and how they impacted the diagnosis of diabetes. One in particular, the G6PD gene variant, was found to significantly impact the results of HbA1c tests in African Americans. This specific gene variant is almost totally unique to people of African ancestryIn fact, about 11 per cent of African Americans carry this gene variant.

“The issue with the G6PD genetic variant is it artificially lowers the value of blood sugar in the HbA1c test, and can lead to under-diagnosis of people with type 2 diabetes. We estimate that if we tested all Americans for diabetes using the HbA1c test, we would miss type 2 diabetes in around 650,000 African Americans.”

Diabetes Differences in African AmericansBetween the 10% of African Americans with sickle cell trait and the 10% with the G6PD gene variant trait, a huge number of African Americans with diabetes are being un-diagnosed or diagnosed late with advanced diabetes.   Diagnosing diabetes as soon as it strikes, gives everyone (the doctor and patient) adequate time to prevent complications before they occur.

If you have just been diagnosed with diabetes, I have a great video that will get you off to a good start HERE.  If you want to know about other genetic differences look HERE.

http://drgreghall.com/expert-healthcare-african-americans/

Love Your Kids, Not Your Guns

Love kids not guns

It’s silly that I have to write an article about something so obvious: Love your kids, not your guns.  I’ve wrongly stayed neutral about gun control because so many of my patients have and love guns.  And frankly, I didn’t want to alienate them.  I’ve said to myself, if they want to have assault weapons and an arsenal in the basement of their home, who am I to say what they do . . . . or what they have? Some people collect stamps and other people collect guns.  Collecting stamps never impacted so many other lives as collecting guns. The people that collect stamps really get into it.  They travel to foreign lands just to personally buy incredibly valuable stamps, and many I’m told, can never stop.  Their stamp collection is never complete.  Many of my friends and patients with guns have the same “story” where they collect various guns of different fashions and capacities . . . and their collections seem boundless as well.  Up to one third of adults engage in some form of “collecting” and for many Americans, guns are their passion.

357 Million Guns

Americans, by far, own the most guns per capita in the world, with over one gun per person. But gun ownership is highly concentrated with only about a third of Americans admitting to owning one.  And these numbers are decreasing from numbers in the 1970’s where the majority of Americans had guns. Among these “normal” gun owners is a small subset of “gun super-owners” who have huge collections that can result in well over one hundred guns.  Once they collect the usual hand guns and rifles for hunting or home protection, they migrate into bigger and more impressive gun collections that have the capacity for wide-spread devastation.  They buy rapid fire machine guns, grenades, silencers, and more.  They are not planning to attack anyone, but if someone attacks them . . . there’s going to be trouble.   This small number of law-abiding collectors do not want their ability, or access, to guns and ammunition impeded by laws that restrict what they can “collect.”

Why have all of these guns?

When admiring their gun collection, some “super owners” confess to imagining jumping into action at a moment’s notice.  They fantasize about heroic acts that will finally validate their collection.  Do I have enough guns to fight off an invasion of aliens like in the movie “Independence Day?”   What if aliens attack us?  Who will protect us?  The neighbor “gun super-owner” will come to our rescue. That’s silly.  Aliens won’t attack. Love kids not gunsWhat about some virus that “goes bad” and turns half of the world into the “Walking Dead” or zombies like in “World War Z”?  Then I’d bet you wish you had rapid fire assault machine guns to kill all of those “walkers”!   But how much ammunition would you need? Would it run out? Love kids not gunsWait.  That’s silly.  You couldn’t store enough ammunition for that.  The zombies would eventually get us. What about some sort of invasion of the Russians (or whoever), and somehow the United States military would “break down” and then we would need to defend our homes and community from “the enemy?” Then we’d be happy we had military grade guns and ammunition to defend our freedom. That’s silly too.  They would just drop a bomb.

These “gun super-owners” are collectors.

They are not mass murderers.  They are also not saviors from some potential apocalyptic attack.  They are collectors that are simply obsessed with guns.  But their well-meaning obsession puts highly destructive weapons within the reach of other people who shouldn’t have them.  The gun collectors, like the stamp collectors, think they pose no threat.  But they do, and they have. That basement arsenal can be accessed by children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, or simple criminals who would have no other access to these weapons except for your less-than-secure home security system. Are you ready to take responsibility for your guns no matter where they go, or what they do? The usual approach of "guns don't kill people, people kill people" can no longer apply.  Over-prescribing opioids by doctors has been rightfully blamed for some of the opioid epidemic.  If the pills had not been in the medicine cabinet, the kids wouldn't have experimented, and the addiction could have been avoided in some.   A massive campaign has begun to decrease the amount of opioids that are readily available . . . and no one has objected.  Where are the "pain pills don't kill people, abusing pain pills kills people" objectors? They simply do not exist because its a silly argument. Gun super-owners mean well, but their right to bear arms (or collect arms) shouldn’t extend into our ability to educate our children in an environment free of military-style attacks. Assault weapons have no place in a civilized society. Love your kids, not your guns. Love kids not guns

Is Cholesterol Lowering Medicine Bad for You?

Many of my patients have high cholesterol and are on cholesterol lowering medicines called statins like Lipitor (atorvastatin), Zocor (simvastatin), and Crestor (rosuvastatin).  Occasionally they will come in saying some well-meaning friend told them that “cholesterol medicine is bad for them.”  They ask me: “Is cholesterol lowering medicine bad for you?”

My answer is almost always: Absolutely NOT. But where does this notion this come from? Where does it say that statins (what we call this group of medicines) are bad for you?

Some of the interest in statins is purely from its widespread use. Over 30 million people are on statins and some recommendations predicts that over 70 million would benefit.   African Americans have significantly higher heart disease, diabetes, and circulation problems so the odds of an African American being recommended to start a statin are high.

What do statins do?

Essentially, statins lower your cholesterol (total cholesterol and bad cholesterol) and by lowering the cholesterol, the “clogging” of the arteries with cholesterol is lessened.

Is Cholesterol Lowering Medicine Bad for You?
Cholesterol in artery

The higher the cholesterol, the more clogging of arteries.  If you clog the arteries in your brain, you get a stroke.  Clog the arteries in your heart, you have a heart attack. Clog the arteries in your legs, you get poor circulation to your feet which could cause infections that could lead to amputation.  By lowering the amount of cholesterol, you lower the chance of clogging . . . anywhere.

Is Cholesterol Lowering Medicine ( statins ) Bad for You?
By BruceBlaus – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28761812

Scientists have also found that lowering a high cholesterol also reverses clogging that may have already happened. Mainly, the HDL “GOOD” cholesterol serves this artery-cleaning purpose and by lowering the overall burden of clogged arteries, it can “catch up” with clearing the narrow passages that could lead to total blockage.

What should my Lipid levels be?

When doctors measure your cholesterol (Lipid Panel), they look for a total cholesterol less than 200 and a LDL or “bad” cholesterol of less than 120.  In people with existing diagnoses of diabetes, circulation problems, heart attack, stroke, or a family history of early heart attacks or strokes, we shoot for an even lower LDL that is less than 100 . . . or even lower!

Is Cholesterol Lowering Medicine ( statins ) Bad for You?
Cholesterol in artery

Large studies of numerous patients have shown substantial benefit of cholesterol lowering medicines with significantly decreased heart attacks, strokes, and other circulation related medical problems.

Statins help people with kidney problems too?

Another study showed significant benefit of “statins” to people with kidney problems, and it helped many avoid dialysis.  Kidney problems are very common in the Black community so anything that improves kidney outcomes can be a big help.

African Americans have “better” cholesterol levels.

Curiously, in general African Americans tend to have “better” cholesterol numbers than White Americans.

With disproportionally higher heart disease in African Americans, researchers have wondered how these better lipid profiles coincide with the documented worse outcomes.  The variability seen based on race is yet another curiosity given doctors’ accepted association of bad cholesterol levels equaling worse health, and good levels leading to improved health.

“It is clear that there is further complexity in this relationship among African Americans, who have, on average, a more favorable lipid profile compared to European Americans, yet they do not experience an associated decrease in diseases that are expected to be responsive to reduction in this key risk factor”

Years earlier, scientists attributed elevated Lipoprotein Lipase (LPL) levels, the enzyme responsible for breaking down fat, and lower levels of other components, as principally responsible for the improved cholesterol picture in African Americans.  Others have confirmed that the better lipid profiles in African Americans is not due to diet and lifestyle considerations noting worse fat content in foods and less exercise in African American populations compared to White Americans.

Attempts to drill down to why good lipids do not lead to better outcomes in African Americans have continued to baffle doctors, but the assumption is the impact of uncontrolled high blood pressure, obesity, and higher diabetes rates overwhelm the beneficial impact of the improved cholesterol levels. It is also possible that African Americans patients should start cholesterol lowering medications at different (lower) thresholds.

Less Prescribed & Less Taken

Is Cholesterol Lowering Medicine Bad for You?Unfortunately, African Americans have a poor track record of taking cholesterol lowering medicines when prescribed after a stroke, heart attack, or most other reasons for starting the medication.  And doctors are less likely to prescribe statins in African Americans across the board.  The result is a deadly combination of a doctor that is less likely to give a medication to a patient . . . and a patient that is less likely to take it.  This inconsistency speaks to the trust issues African Americans have with doctors.

Overall statin use and lowering cholesterol saves lives.  Dr. Carol Watson, a Black cardiologist said it best in her article “Let the evidence speak”

“These trials thus confirm that significant benefits can occur from statin use in African Americans. Despite this, however, statins remain underutilized in the African American population, thus those that might stand to benefit most, are least likely to receive these life saving medications.”

So the question: Is cholesterol lowering medicine bad for you?

The answer for African Americans is crystal clear: lower cholesterol leads to fewer heart attacks, fewer strokes, better kidney function, better circulation, fewer amputations, and longer lives.  Don’t get it twisted . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Sleep Differences in African Americans

Sleep Differences in African Americans

There are racial disparities in sleep with African Americans having a shorter sleep duration, a harder time falling asleep, and a tendency to wake up more easily after falling asleep.  There is also a decreased ability to phase shift African Americans sleep cycles when exposed to jet-lag and shift work situations, and the total duration of the cycle was smaller, a study by Eastman and colleagues at Rush University Medical Center found.  Sleep differences in African Americans cause a good deal of suffering.

These researchers surmised that the differences in sleep architecture grew from thousands of years of genetic modifications resulting from, for African Americans, exposure to year-around consistent 12-hour light-dark cycles, versus whites coming for northern regions with significant variability in the day length, dawn, and dusk times.

For example, in Ohio the day length changes from as short as eight hours in the winter to as long as sixteen hours in the summer.  Ohioans are constantly adjusting to time shifts. With thousands of years of exposure to time changes, Ohioans would develop an increased ability to tolerate the changes.  Closer to the equator (like western Africa), the time doesn’t shift nearly as much. The days are 12 hours long all year and there is no need to have an ability to tolerate time shifts.

Therefore “the shifting circadian periods in non-equatorial regions left a genetically modified increased tolerance for variable light-dark productivity hours.” Put simply, people who genetically come from regions near the equator are less able to adjust to time shifts, daylight savings times, jet lag, or anything else that causes a shift in sunrise and sunset.

Sleep Differences in African Americans

Everyone has a “circadian period” which is an innate sleep wake cycle.  We also have an ability to shift that cycle somewhat.  People whose genes come from northern areas of the earth (Europe, Canada, etc.) have an ability to tolerate shifts in time whereas those of us from Caribbean, African, South American regions have much more difficulty adjusting.

In another study, researchers exposed African Americans and White Americans to a 9 hour delayed light/dark sleep/wake and meal schedule, similar to traveling from Chicago to Japan.  Essentially what would take 10 days for full adjustment in White Americans, would take 15 days for African Americans to adjust.

Swing shifts are bad for your health!

The need to adjust to time zone changes is only occasional in most people, and there are methods to make this adjustment smoother, but shift work seen in factory workers, police and fireman, healthcare staff, and other positions place an additional health burden on these workers. Shift working was found to add an additional 40 percent risk of heart disease as compared to non-shift work.

There is also increased weight gain as a result of decreased glucose tolerance from meals consumed in the night.  When eating at night, your body tends to store more of the calories rather than burn them.  Therefore night workers (who have to eat sometimes) tend to be more overweight.  Researchers have also found that shifts workers have worse cholesterol results.

All of this contributes to increased health problems and premature death.

Shift work is more prevalent in the African American community and is also associated with worse health outcomes including:

By incorporating a planned exercise schedule and diet, emphasizing the dangers of smoking (particularly in shift workers), and providing better insight into the social impact of these schedules, can help many shift workers.  And the few individuals that continually fail to adjust to shift work may feel better knowing there is a simple explanation for their troubles.

It’s in their genes.

Low Vitamin D in African Americans

Low Vitamin D in African Americans

Vitamin D is acquired through diet and skin exposure to ultraviolet B light. The skin’s production of vitamin D is determined by length of exposure, latitude, season, and degree of skin pigmentation.  African Americans produce less vitamin D than do White Americans in response to equal levels of sun exposure, and have dramatically lower vitamin D concentrations with some studies indicating up to 96 percent of the African American population as low.  Yet both races tend to have similar capacities to absorb vitamin D and to produce vitamin D when exposed to light. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4030388/)

Low Vitamin D in African Americans

Overall when measured, African Americans tend to have lower vitamin D3 levels and are very frequently labeled “vitamin D deficient”, but also have confirmed stronger bones and fewer fractures. Powe and colleagues at the Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Cambridge Massachusetts looked specifically at this paradox and looked at vitamin D3 and vitamin D-binding proteins.

“Lower levels of vitamin D–binding protein in blacks appear to result in levels of bioavailable 25-hydroxyvitamin D that are equivalent to those in whites. These data . . . suggest that low total 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels do not uniformly indicate vitamin D deficiency and call into question routine supplementation in persons with low levels of both total 25-hydroxyvitamin D and vitamin D– binding protein who lack other traditional manifestations of this condition.”

The result of these studies suggest that having both a low vitamin D level and a low vitamin D-binding protein in African Americans actually causes a ‘re-set’ of true deficiency.  With both being low, it is vitamin D’s bioavailability that drives calcium levels, parathyroid hormone levels, and true bone risk.

Dr. Powe concluded:

“Vitamin D deficiency is certainly present in persons with very low levels of total 25-hydroxyvitamin D accompanied by hyperparathyroidism, hypocalcemia, or low BMD (bone mass density). However, community-dwelling blacks with total 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels below the threshold used to define vitamin D deficiency typically lack these accompanying characteristic alterations. The high prevalence among blacks of a polymorphism in the vitamin D–binding protein gene that is associated with low levels of vitamin D–binding protein results in levels of bioavailable 25-hydroxyvitamin D that are similar to those in whites, despite lower levels of total 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Alterations in vitamin D–binding protein levels may therefore be responsible for observed racial differences in total 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and manifestations of vitamin D deficiency.”

So all of this would suggest that African Americans don’t need Vitamin D replacement or supplements.

Do we need additional Vitamin D or not??

Ken Batai and colleaguesLow Vitamin D in African Americans at the University of Arizona, after studying over two thousand people, found a direct benefit to Vitamin D supplements to preventing prostate cancer in African American men and a pro-carcinogenic effect (inducing effect) of calcium supplementation on the prostate. These findings were strongest in African Americans.

“Calcium and vitamin D are important nutrients, and they may have preventive effects against many health conditions. Although toxicity from high vitamin D supplementation may be low, high calcium intake is associated with increased prostate cancer risk as well as risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney stones. High calcium consumption might be harmful and for prostate cancer prevention, high dose calcium supplementation and fortification should be avoided, especially among AA (African American) men.”

High calcium intake in African American men may actually increase the risk for prostate cancer, but taking vitamin D can reduce the risk.

Atrial Fibrillation in African Americans

Atrial Fibrillation in African Americans

Atrial fibrillation in African Americans, also called “A Fib”, effects one in nine before the age of 80 and is the most prevalent arrhythmia in the US and is associated with significant bad outcomes that include stroke, heart failure, and increased death.  Surprisingly, studies also confirm a decreased atrial fibrillation incidence in African Americans (41% lower risk of being diagnosed than European Americans) but a greatly increased occurrence of stroke and sudden death in African Americans with atrial fibrillation. So compared to whites, African Americans are less likely to get atrial fibrillation, more commonly called “A Fib”, but if they get it, are more likely to have complications. This is just one of many “important differences” that exist in the care of African Americans.

“Racial Paradox?”

Some have suggested that the decreased incidence of atrial fibrillation in African Americans is actually under-diagnosis, but others have called it a “racial paradox” where despite atrial fibrillation being a result of increased high blood pressure, diabetes, over-weight, heart failure, and heart attacks, all of which are higher in African Americans, the incidence of atrial fibrillation is surprisingly lower.

Atrial Fibrillation In African AmericansAfrican Americans were also less likely to be aware they have A Fib, and much less likely to be treated with blood thinners like warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven) that prevent the heart attacks and strokes that having A Fib causes.   Even more surprising was this decreased use of warfarin in African Americans was regardless of whether the person had insurance or made more money.   It is truly stunning that a medication to prevent strokes is used LESS in a group of people who are prone to have MORE strokes and this was found in a study by Meschia and colleagues who looked at over 30,000 patients:

“We also found that among those who were aware that they had AF (atrial fibrillation) and who had confirmation of the diagnosis of AF, (African Americans) were about one quarter as likely to be treated with warfarin as whites. In striking contrast, risk of stroke as stratified by the CHADS2 score was not a predictor of warfarin use. The fact that risk of future stroke did not significantly alter the likelihood of warfarin use would seem to reflect an evidence-practice gap.”

A Higher Risk for Death

The risk for death in the presence of atrial fibrillation (A Fib) in the first four months after diagnosis was very high with heart disease, heart failure and stroke accounting for the most of the deaths, the study also found.  The risk for hospitalization in African Americans from atrial fibrillation doubled as did the risk for recurrent stroke, and related dementia from repeated “little strokes” (multi-infarct dementia).

What is the Best Medication for A Fib?

So the medical evidence would suggest that African Americans should receive MORE treatment with blood thinning medications like warfarin and other newer medications like dabigatran (Pradaxa), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), or apixaban (Eliquis) . . . and in fact they receive LESS.

Some of the complaints about warfarin is the need to have relatively frequent blood tests to confirm the “thin-ness” of your blood.  These tests called “PT / INR” shoots for an INR between 2.0 and 3.0.  Less than 2.0 means your blood is “too thick” and more than 3.0 means it is “too thin.”  The newer medications to replace warfarin do not need blood tests.

Keep in mind that African Americans have an increased risk for complications from bleeding on some of these newer medications like dabigatran (Pradaxa), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), or apixaban (Eliquis), so although it can be more inconvenient with frequent blood draws, warfarin may be best for now until more information is available. There is also significant evidence that there are warfarin dosing differences between European Americans and African Americans that need to be anticipated and considered.

What You Need to Know . . .

While this topic may seem a little confusing, here are the main points:

  1. If you have atrial fibrillation (A Fib), you are at a much greater risk for stroke or another major event.
  2. Being on a blood thinner, like warfarin, can significantly decrease your risk for stroke (or another event).
  3. Being on a blood thinner increases your risk for bleeding . . . but not as much as it decreases your risk for stroke. So while you risk a bleed, your risk for stroke is much higher.
  4. The newer “blood thinners” do not require as many lab tests as warfarin, but they also may not be as safe in African Americans (this is controversial and not clear).

Here is a video on anticoagulation and warfarin:

 

Kidney Disease in African Americans

Kidney Disease in African AmericansKidney disease in African Americans

Kidney disease in African Americans is one the most dramatically different occurrences of a disease, and results in significant suffering and death.  Generally kidney disease is the result of diabetes and high blood pressure, and given the increased number of both of these in African Americans, there is a six to twelve-fold increased occurrence compared to whites.  Additionally, there is a 17-fold greater rate of high blood pressure as a cause of kidney failure in African Americans.  If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, or both, your risk for kidney failure resulting in needing dialysis is MUCH higher if you are African American.
Having diabetes and high blood pressure that is controlled on medications almost erases this increased risk. This is why it is critical that if you have high blood pressure, you should take medication to bring it down. If you have diabetes, you should make sure your blood sugars are controlled because if you don’t, your risk for needing dialysis is very high.
Kidney disease in African Americans

Risk for Requiring Dialysis is High

While African Americans are 13 percent of the general population, we make up 35 percent of all patients on chronic dialysis.  Diabetes as the leading cause of kidney failure and high blood pressure is the second most common cause.
Not having medical insurance or access to medical facilities and the increased number of people with high blood pressure contribute greatly to kidney disease in African Americans.  Having high blood pressure but being on the wrong medications can contribute as well.

Well designed studies have failed to fully account for the excess proportion of kidney disease in Blacks.  Anatomically, despite equivalent age, blood pressure, and other factors, African Americans tend to have reduced kidney blood flow. Despite similar dietary salt intake, the kidney’s processing of bodily fluids are somewhat different in African Americans compared to whites.  Reducing salt in your diet can greatly improve health.

A Possible Genetic Cause?

The Tsetse Fly transmits the African Sleeping Sickness. By International Atomic Energy Agency

Some of the increased risk for kidney disease in African Americans is attributed to a genetic variant (APOL1) found in more than 30% of African Americans and largely absent in white Americans.  It is thought that this gene offered protection from African Sleeping Sickness (a frequently deadly disease known in medical circles as African trypanosomiasis) that was carried by the Tsetse fly. Basically, having this gene gave protection from the African Sleeping Sickness and was beneficial in African regions where the tsetse fly lived.
Scientists believe that the increased risk for kidney disease seen in African Americans is equal to the increased occurrence of the same gene that offered protection from the deadly African Sleeping Sickness.

Obesity Can Lead to Kidney Problems Too

In addition to these genetic differences, researchers also suspect that increased obesity in African Americans is driving up kidney disease.  They found that as your BMI (Body Mass Index is calculated based on your weight and height) gets higher, the risk for kidney problems increases.

With all of the kidney disease in the African American community, there is one last bit of curious news.  African Americans have a better survival rate on dialysis than white Americans.  This paradox of improved survival in African Americans after initiation of dialysis has puzzled researchers.  Researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine suggest that the improved survival may also be due to the very gene that causes the problem . . . the APOL1 gene.  In this case the APOL1 gene gives protection against hardening of the arteries while on dialysis.

Kidney Disease in African AmericansHere’s What You Need To Do . . .

Kidney disease in African Americans can be a confusing topic to understand and there is a lot to consider.  The most important points are:

  1. If you have high blood pressure, take your medicine and watch your salt intake so that your pressure stays normal. That will allow your kidneys to stay normal.
  2. If you have diabetes, take your medicine and watch your diet so that your blood sugars stay normal.
  3. Watch your weight because the bigger you are, the higher your chance for kidney disease.


Lactose Intolerance in African Americans

Lactose Intolerance in African Americans

Three out of four African Americans are lactose intolerant.  Lactose intolerance means that if you drink milk, eat yogurt, have cheese, or any other dairy-based product in large amounts, your digestive system will have difficulty digesting it.  Most people report feeling bloated and later have loose gassy stool (sorry . . . but these are the facts).

Lactose Intolerance in African Americans

If you are not near a toilet (of your choice), this can be an embarrassing problem.  The stomach’s reaction to not being able to digest lactose (a sugar in dairy products) is to simply flush it through its system.   For a majority, lactose intolerance in African Americans simply leads to the avoidance of milk and milk-related products.

The significantly decreased intake of milk and dairy products in the African American diet presents a potential increased health risk as “moderate evidence shows that the intake of milk and milk products is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and lower blood pressure in adults”.  Constance Brown-Riggs in her article “Nutrition and Health Disparities: The role of Dairy in Improving Minority Health Outcomes” has recommendations for African Americans to consume three to four servings of low-fat dairy daily.

If only one serving of dairy causes stomach upset and loose stool . . . what will three servings cause?  That question is what many African Americans ask themselves, and the answer has been very clear.  African Americans drink significantly less milk and eat substantially less cheese and yogurt when compared to the rest of the American population.

The decreased dairy consumption leads to decreased intake of essential nutrients that are found in milk and cheeses. Studies show that African Americans’ intake of the required nutrients calcium, vitamin D, and potassium were all lower than white and Hispanic Americans.  And it has been well known in medical circles that African Americans have significantly lower vitamin D levels in their blood.

A Genetic Link for Lactose Intolerance??

Lactose Intolerance in African AmericansThe choice for African Americans to avoid milk and related products is not voluntary.  Lactose intolerance in African Americans may be due to a genetic design.  Research has shown that the proportion of people that are lactose intolerant can be tied to their region of genetic origin.  Put simply, regions where dairy herds could be raised safely and efficiently produced people that could digest lactose. Harsher climates in African and Asia restricted the availability of milk, and produced people with much more lactose intolerance, a study at Cornell University found.  Researchers found a wide range of lactose intolerances with as low as 2 percent of the population of Denmark descendants as unable to have dairy products compared to nearly 100 percent of the people with Zambian African origin.

Their survey “found that lactose intolerance decreases with increasing latitude and increases with rising temperature”.

Lactose Intolerance in African Americans
Red = Lactose Intolerant, Green = Lactose Tolerant, Brown = 50/50

Newer information has revealed that maybe there are not as many purely lactose intolerant African Americans as previously thought.  Nutritionists have advised that adding milk to a larger meal helps with successful digestion.  Some find that having smaller amounts of dairy over time improves digestion and decreases symptoms.

Lactose Intolerance Solutions

Lactose Intolerance in African AmericansOthers advise to simply take a lactose enzyme supplement (Lactaid, for example), and the problem is solved because milk, yogurt, or cheese is then easily broken down normally and naturally . . . while the dairy products again provide improved nutrient supplementation.

Other ways of replacing the missing nutrients resulting from low dairy consumption has become fairly easy due to multiple milk equivalents including soy, almond, coconut, and other ‘milks’ that can be used as part of a healthy breakfast.  All have been ‘fortified’ with calcium and vitamin D if needed.  Oatmeal and/or whole grain cereals with milk equivalents can make a fast and nutritionally efficient meal.

A ‘new’ problem is that African Americans consistently eat fewer breakfasts, and therefore the “opportunity” to have milk, yogurt, cheese, or milk equivalents has substantially decreased. Look at my article on “Diet Differences in African Americans” for more details.

Making a point of having the required serving of calcium and vitamin D in the form of a dairy (or dairy-like) product is the next nutritional priority of Black Americans seeking a longer and healthier life.