There are alarming health disparities that still persist between Blacks and whites. It seems Black men are walking time bombs, plagued by such illnesses as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, drug abuse or AIDS. The most common cancers for Black men are prostate, lung and colorectal. Black men also smoke more than any other racial group. As far as life expectancy, if you’re a Black man, premature death looms as you can expect to die on average, five years sooner at age 71.8 years old, than your white counterparts. An even more sobering set of facts, Black men have death rates due to suicide and homicide at least twice those of any other segment of the population. Older Black men between the ages of 45 and 64 also tend to become afflicted with diseases sooner and harder.
The dismal statistics regarding our men do bear out the reason for great concern, yet ironically, many still hold ethnic expectations that they need to be physically and emotionally tough. Sadly, many Black macho men believe they will survive any ailment that strikes and will continue to self-diagnose and engage in doctor-avoidance tactics until a loved one pushes them out the door as they kick and scream to seek medical treatment.
According to Derek Griffith, Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine, Health & Society and the founder and director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University, Black men tend to lend more importance to their roles as providers, fathers, spouses, and community members instead of refocusing on themselves and delving into behaviors that will keep them healthy longer. Dr. Griffith agrees that by flipping the script on the way Black men interact with medical providers, they can get a jump on many life-threatening diseases. Dr. Griffith spoke with 50BOLD about the poor state of Black men’s health and even offers remedies on how to change some very detrimental behaviors.
50BOLD: What is really going on with our Black men, healthwise in this country?
Dr. Griffith: It’s not good. Men tend to live shorter lives than women and shorter lives than men in other high-income countries. Black men tend to live sicker and die younger than other groups of men and Black women. While everyone is living longer than we did years ago, for some reason Black men’s health isn’t benefitting from the range of things that are helping Americans and others live longer.
50BOLD: Are Black men guilty of being negligent when it comes to taking care of themselves?
Dr. Griffith: Well, let me say it this way. When we judge Black men in our community and in the U.S., we don’t do so based on their health. We judge them based on their employment, ability to provide for their children, and roles in their families, religious institutions, and community, particularly when men are middle-aged. If men are unhealthy or die young but do well in these areas, we say he was a “good man” or had a “good life.” Men tend to focus their attention on the areas of life that we use to judge them as men over their health. They often don’t want their minds and lives cluttered with health issues that they assume, they can’t do anything about or that based on their family history, they assume is inevitable.
50BOLD: What should Black men do to step up their health game?
Dr. Griffith: Here are some of my recommendations regarding what Black men can do to improve their health status:
- Listen to what their grandmother and mother told them: eat their vegetables, get adequate sleep, and get some exercise. Somebody also probably told them to go to the doctor for checkups every year or two, and certainly not just when they’re sick!
- Black men also have to find healthy ways to manage stress, this is a huge problem that can affect every area of their lives. The hard part isn’t always knowing what to do, it’s doing what you know you need to do, in order to make being healthy consistently, a priority. Black men tend to live stressful lives and don’t benefit financially, socially or educationally from higher education, work, or other positive things as much as others. I’m not saying they should not try to do something about that, but understand that they’re not always playing on a level playing field.
- Despite all that is going on in life, they still have to find time to take care of themselves. Men often think of their bodies as an afterthought…no matter how they treat it, it’ll still continue to work. They may be able to get away with this type of attitude when they’re younger but as they age, the negligent behavior will absolutely catch up with them.
- Being healthy and being successful is not an either-or proposition. Yes, Black men need to be good fathers, husbands, partners, sons, uncles, employees, mentors, members of organizations and members of their communities, but they can’t do any of these things, or certainly, can’t do them as well as they could, if they don’t take care of their health.
- There’s no need to make massive life changes in order to lead healthier lives. Black men can start small. Replace soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages with just water. Use less salt in food. Quit smoking. Get some more quality sleep at night. Take a walk. Learn to say no. Ask for help. And of course, pray.
50BOLD: Are barbershops a good place to bring up tough topics about health? Can the conversations there keep our men healthy and if so, why?
Dr. Griffith: Barbershop conversations can help keep Black men healthy or get them to be healthier but this all depends on the nature of the conversation. Barbershops can be great places to learn about what is going on in the community but like any other community setting, it is not always the place to get the most up to date or accurate information about health. The connection and support that Black men get from their barbers and barbershops can be critically important because it’s such an essential haven to connect socially, honestly and to be themselves.