Limiting the Risk of COVID-19 Infection in African Americans

While wearing a mask in public, washing your hands, social distancing, and covering your cough/sneeze greatly decreases your risk for contracting COVID-19, there a some other less-proven approaches that also need discussion and consideration.

A good amount of theoretical approaches to minimize the spread and severity of COVID-19 have been published. Given this new coronavirus has limited confirmed supplement approaches to prevention and treatment, providers are using foundational knowledge regarding populations and viral infections, and hypothesizing (or guessing) what might be effective.

African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 with a much higher hospitalization rate and mortality.  At the core of worse outcomes in African Americans is poorly controlled chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and COPD.  But there is also firm population data that points to trends in vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may also contribute to poor outcomes.  Using what we know about these trends and the fundamentals of infections (both viral and bacterial), and also keeping a keen eye on safety, here is what I have been recommending my patients consider.

Zinc (10 to 15 mg) one to three times a day when COVID-19 exposure risk is high

Zinc is an essential trace element that is critical for a variety of biological processes and proper immune function. Studies have consistently shown zinc deficiencies in African Americans and believe the dramatically increased rate of HIV and hepatitis C in African Americans represents an impaired immune defense linked to lower levels of zinc. Zinc’s antiviral activity has been confirmed against a variety of viruses and the science of how zinc either prevents infection or slows viral spread is well established.

There is also emerging evidence that zinc’s antiviral and antibacterial activities may help slow coronavirus spread and ease the complications that result from an infection. The improved antiviral immunity conveyed by zinc could be particularly impactful during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some suggest that the increased severity of COVID-19 in African Americans may reflect a low zinc status and the Mayo Clinic confirms that zinc is clearly more beneficial in populations that have deficiencies.

Vitamin D (2000 IU) once daily

The most dramatic vitamin differences by race or ethnicity relate to vitamin D levels which nutritionists agree is deficient in four of five African Americans. The widespread vitamin D deficiency is somewhat related to the melanin in darker skin, widespread lactose intolerance (also genetically driven) as well as urban living leading to decreased sun exposure.

The lack of vitamin D has been associated with an array of bad outcomes including increased stroke, heart disease, pre-term birth, and a host of cancers including lung, colon, ovarian, breast, and prostate. Low vitamin D has also been associated with a higher risk for lupus (SLE), multiple sclerosis, diabetes and hypertension.  African Americans have the absolute highest risk for diabetes, hypertension, stroke and the cancers listed.  The lack of vitamin D has also been linked to worse outcomes in COVID-19 infections, but its association may simply be a marker for the chronic diseases listed above.  Most African American patients, particularly the elderly and those with limited sun exposure and the potential for exposure to COVID-19 should consider taking vitamin D at 2000 IU daily.

Famotidine (20 mg) once daily

In a study at Columbia University, patients hospitalized with COVID-19 that had famotidine, the acid blocker also known as “Pepcid” within the prior few days had better outcomes.  They concluded that “famotidine use was associated with a reduced risk of clinical deterioration leading to intubation or death”.  This mechanism of action is not random.  Researchers note that famotidine is known to inhibit viral replication in some instances.  There are also first-hand accounts of rapid improvement after COVID-19 infection.  Given its safety (and over-the-counter availability), its use in a COVID-19 exposed vulnerable population can be justified.

While this information is far from confirmed, its science has a good foundation. Given African American’s well-established vitamin D and zinc deficiencies in the face of a “curiously high” infection rate, these largely safe measures, may make a difference. As always, check with your provider before starting any of these supplements or vitamins as your individual case may warrant a different approach.

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.

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.”

Between 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 below.

If you want to know about other genetic differences look HERE.

 

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

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.

 

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 . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Strokes in African Americans

 Strokes in African Americans

Most strokes in African Americans occur due to high blood pressure and a much higher number of African Americans have uncontrolled blood pressure.  A quarter of all strokes occur in the presence of atrial fibrillation (a fib) and while representing 13 percent of the US population, African Americans experience almost twice that percentage of all strokes (26%).

Strokes are Worse in Blacks

And when a stroke occurs, African Americans have them earlier in life and present with more severe and disabling conditions.    The “Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes” group concluded that “compared with other race/ethnicity groups, (African American) patients were less likely to receive IV tissue-type plasminogen activator <3 hours, early antithrombotics, antithrombotics at discharge, and lipid-lowering medication prescribed at discharge,” a study looking at over 200,000 patients showed.

Not surprisingly, with these prescriptive deficiencies in play, data analysis also showed a persistently increased re-hospitalization rate in African Americans at both 30 days and one year for all causes.  African Americans also have a 2.4 times higher rate of recurrent strokes than white Americans, and the highest death rate of any racial group.
Stroke patients overseen by neurologists were almost 4 times more likely to receive IV clot dissolving medicine than those seen by non-neurologists for all races and ethnicities (study from the Baylor College of Medicine ), but unfortunately African Americans were half as likely as whites to be seen by a neurologist when presenting with a stroke.

Aspirin to reduce Strokes in African Americans

Aspirin use is decreased among African Americans as compared to whites while the indications for aspirin use are actually higher in African Americans. More African Americans should be taking aspirin because it reduces the risk of stroke, heart disease, and colon cancer. And this was proven at the low dose of 81 mg.  The risk for gastrointestinal bleed is much lower than the risk of stroke, heart attack, etc.
African Americans over age 40 should be taking aspirin to help with the increased incidence of colon cancer, heart disease, and strokes.

Overall, prevention experts (USPSTF ) recommend referring adults who have stroke risk factors and are obese to intense behavioral counseling to promote a healthy diet and more physical activity. That means going to your doctor and having a detailed conversation about what you do . . . and what you eat.  For example, by decreasing your intake of salt and fried foods, lowering the blood pressure and getting proper exercise, strokes in African Americans can greatly decrease.

Take a look at this video that explains why you need to start your medicine, keep taking it, and come in to make sure it is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Take care.

 

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” name 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

Establishing Trust When Patients Distrust Doctors

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Multiple studies over an extended period of time confirm what most doctors and providers already knew, African Americans are more likely to distrust doctors and other healthcare providers than patients of other racial or ethnic groups.

What many of us did not know was why.  As providers, we spent many years training to help others.  Medicine is a service profession. Why would anyone suspect our intentions, question our motives, or assign us collectively as untrustworthy?  The answer lies in the historical experience African Americans had with America’s doctors, hospitals, and researchers.

A History of Abuse

While the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is a ‘classic example’ of abuse based purely on race, unfortunately the American experience has many more examples of why African Americans mistrust the medical community.

From African American’s earliest days in this country, abuse based on race was commonplace.  Slaves were frequently used as subjects for dissection, surgical experimentation, and medical testing. J. Marion Sims, MD, the so-called father of modern gynecology perfected many of his surgical techniques on slave girls without anesthesia. Stories of doctors kidnapping and killing southern blacks for experimentation consistently appear in literature throughout American history.

Distrust DoctorsAs Vanesa Northington Gamble, MD, PhD put in her article “Under the Shadow of Tuskegee: African Americans and Health Care” tales of ‘medical student’ grave robbers, recount the exploitation of southern blacks as their deceased family members would be stolen and sent to northern medical schools for anatomy dissection.  Dr. Gable writes:

“These historical examples clearly demonstrate that African Americans’ distrust of the medical profession has a longer history than the public revelations of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. There is a collective memory among African Americans about their exploitation by the medical establishment.”

Racial Differences in Trust

Chanita Hughes Halbert published a study in JAMA in 2006 looking at racial differences in trust in healthcare providers. Her study of almost one thousand white American and African American patients found that “compared with whites, African Americans were most likely to report low trust in health care providers.”

“Trust has been described as an expectation that medical care providers (physicians, nurses, and others) will act in ways that demonstrate that the patient’s interests are a priority. Trust is a multidimensional construct that includes perceptions of the health care provider’s technical ability, interpersonal skills, and the extent to which the patient perceives that his or her welfare is placed above other considerations. Trust is an important determinant of adherence to treatment and screening recommendations and the length and quality of relationships with health care providers.”

Fortunately, the level of trust a patient has for any specific provider is not stagnant, it can be earned.  Increased exposure to providers in general, and to the same provider in specific, has been shown to improve trust.

Physician Bias

In the “Medscape Internist Lifestyle Report 2017“, Carol Peckham looked at internist’s admitted explicit biases “toward specific types or groups of patients” and found wide differences between racial groups in bias for a number of influences.  The study further examined if the physician bias actually impacted care delivery, and almost one in five providers (18%) admitted that their bias did impact the quality of their care.

Generally these biases are positive toward white American patients and negative toward African American patients as a study by Oliver et al demonstrated at the University of Virginia. They found providers explicitly preferred white Americans to African Americans with “significantly higher feelings of warmth toward white people” and also found that white American patients were “more medically cooperative than African Americans”.  This study found no significant difference in the quality of care between the racial groups.

“physicians demonstrated implicit pro-white bias, reported an explicit preference for white people, had beliefs that blacks were less medically cooperative than whites, and believed that subconscious biases could influence their clinical decision making.”

Unconscious Bias

Biases that effect medical care can be consciously counteracted, and admitting the existence of biases is the critical first step in canceling its effect on medical care. Having a doctor who professes to treating “everyone the same” will undoubtedly provide inferior care to patients that are different.

A study done at Johns Hopkins by Lisa Cooper and colleagues found that primary care physicians who hold unconscious racial biases tend to dominate conversations with African-American patients during routine visits, paying less attention to patients’ social and emotional needs, and making these patients feel less involved in decision making related to their health. These patients also reported reduced trust in their doctors, less respectful treatment, and a lower likelihood of recommending the physician to a friend.

Because there are a limited number of physicians to provide care to African Americans, many patients simply “put up” with biases and unequal treatment . . . with others avoiding healthcare altogether until they they arrive in Emergency Departments with very advanced disease.

Patient Centered Care Improves Quality

Patient centered care can positively improve care, specifically for African Americans.  Although this seems obvious, spending time with patients is an easy approach to establishing trust. Fiscella and colleagues measured patient trust against the time spent with a patient and found a one-to-one correlation: the more time spent led to more perceived trust on the part of the patient. Making suggestions about diet changes requires a trusting relationship that involves a non-judgmental regard for the current diet.

Many delays in diagnosis and treatment are simply an outgrowth of the lack of trust. You will not accept someones advice if you don’t trust them.

Find a physician you trust.