Our health is in our own hands

COMMENTARY

African Americans suffer disproportionately from obesity, heart disease and other health-related issues. We as a community can improve on that

With health care reform such a dominant topic, it is a good time to talk about America’s overall health and the areas where we could improve. The future of our nation and that of our children may depend on the steps we take now.

From 1990 to 2000, America saw consistent improvements in its overall health, but that progress stalled in 2000 and remained stagnant. Then, in the latest United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings, we were disappointed to report that America’s overall health actually declined 0.3 percent since 2006.

Considering the fact that the United States spends more on health care than any other nation, this stagnation is especially troubling. Our annual increase in obesity is a key factor in this, along with the increasing number of uninsured Americans. Also, more than 20 percent of Americans continue to smoke, which is astounding considering smoking’s direct link to numerous chronic diseases and death.

African Americans, like other ethnic groups, face the additional obstacle of significant health disparities when compared with Caucasians. For example, African Americans have a premature death rate that is 1.5 times higher and a cancer mortality rate that is 25 percent higher than that of Caucasians.

The difference in obesity is equally striking. Obesity puts people at risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other health problems. Some 24.2 percent of Caucasians are obese, compared with 36.8 percent of African Americans, the highest among any racial group.

Finally, it is also upsetting that even more Americans this year are uninsured, with an increase of 0.5 percent since 2006. Of the 47 million Americans who are now without health insurance, 9 million are children.

So what can we do to improve our lives and those of our children?

  • Stop smoking. Cigarette smoking is still the No. 1 cause of preventable death and disease in America. Within the African American community, roughly 21 percent of the population smokes tobacco.
  • Fight obesity. We need to make exercise, for ourselves and our families, a part of our routine. We also must look at our communities and work together to address challenges that keep us from exercising, such as a lack of parks, walking areas and recreational facilities.
  • Eat a healthful diet. We understand the importance of a diet rich with fruits and vegetables, but it is time to put the plan into action. We can also advocate for healthier meal programs for school-age children and teens.
  • Check your blood pressure. Far too many people do not take advantage of this fundamental screening. Yet, it can be used to detect other health issues. We live in a society where African Americans and Hispanics are suffering from high rates of hypertension, which in turn leads to heart disease.
  • We must make certain that our children receive immunizations, dental check-ups and regular health care.
  • Pregnant women need quality prenatal care. Every adult who knows a family member or friend who is pregnant should ensure she receives prenatal care throughout her pregnancy.
  • Individuals need regular, timely access to medical care. For those who are uninsured, there are community-based health centers that provide some services. The goal is to identify a regular source of health care, keep your appointments and follow the treatment plan prescribed by the doctor.

The statistics seem daunting, but we know from these numbers that we do have the potential to be a healthier America. While we have made improvements – lower rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease, improved education and increased immunizations – we can be healthier.

We can live longer for generations. All we have to do is start making changes now. To learn more about making healthy changes in your life and to download free health educational tips, visit www.uhcgenerations.com.

Dr. John Rennick is medical director for UnitedHealthcare of the Carolinas.

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