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African American Health

Statistics on Health Disparities Among African Americans

Statistics present only a small part of the story of African American health. However, disease and death statistics give us a chance to consider differences that exist between races and areas of possible change. The following statistics are only a starting point for working to improve overall African American health. Some of the most serious diseases and causes of death for African Americans are: infant mortality, heart disease, cancer, stroke (brain attack), diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.



In 2002 in the United States more than 2 1/2 times as many African American newborn babies died (14.1 per 1,000 live deaths) as white newborns.[1] The causes of these deaths are many. Many of the causes of infant death can be prevented through good prenatal care.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is one of the many causes of infant death. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome refers to babies, less than one year of age, dying while they sleep. The exact cause remains unknown, but much is known about how to prevent these deaths. In 2002, the SIDS rate among African Americans was 1.4 per 1,000 which is more than twice that of whites (0.6 per 1,000) [2].


The following table shows that ten leading causes of death for African Americans and whites are similar, although they occur at different rates within each population.

Ten Leading Causes of Death (Both Sexes, All Ages)

African Americans


1. Heart disease

1. Heart disease

2. Cancer

2. Cancer

3. Cerebrovascular Disease or Stroke

3. Cerebrovascular Disease or Stroke

4. Diabetes

4. Chronic Lower respiratory disease

5. Unintentional accidents

5. Unintentional accidents

6. Homicide

6. Diabetes


7. Influenza and Pneumonia

8. Respiratory Disease (COPD)

8. Alzheimer's Disease

9. Nephritis, Nephrotic syndrome and Nephrosis

9. Nephritis, Nephrotic syndrome, and Nephrosis

10. Septicema

10. Suicide

Source: CDC, National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 53, Nov.17, March, 2005

Heart Disease

According to the Office of Minority Health, (Minority and low-income populations have a disproportionate burden of death and disability from CVD. Additionally, African Americans have the highest rate of high blood pressure of all groups and tend to develop it younger than others.[3]


Cancer is the second leading cause of deaths for African Americans. According to the Center for Disease Control article, Health Disparities experienced by Black or African Americans in the United States [4], both African American females and males suffer disproportionately from a variety of cancers as compared to their white counterparts. Some examples of this for African American females are:


For African American males:


According to the Office of Minority Health [5], HIV infection is the fifth leading cause of death for people who are 25-44 years old in the United States, and it is estimated that 850,000 to 950,000 U.S. residents are living with HIV infection, one-quarter of whom are unaware of their infection. HIV/AIDS impacts African Americans particularly hard.



It is hard to know the exact reasons behind the African American health statistics listed above. What we do know is that smoking and other tobacco use contribute to diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. We also know that obesity and inactivity contribute to many of these and other diseases. Studies have also shown that unprotected sex and drug abuse enable the transmission of HIV.

Tobacco Use

African Americans have lower rates of lifetime tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and illicit drug use than Whites, ages 12 and older. However, in 2002, recent illicit drug use was more common among African American adults (16.5 percent) than among White adults (14.9 percent), a significant increase from 1998, when the numbers were 8 percent and 5.7 percent respectively. [7]

Diet and Nutrition

For some African Americans, a family tradition of soul foods, which traditionally depend on fat, sugar and sodium for their flavor may pose a problem when combined with today's lifestyle, which tends to be less active.

Unprotected Sex and Drug Abuse


Much of the disease and premature death that affects people of all races can be linked to lifestyle choices. African Americans are no exception, and in fact, statistics suggest that a number of behaviors that are harmful to one's health are common amongst this group. Fortunately, smoking is no more pervasive in the African American community than the white community, and may be less so among teenagers. However, obesity and intravenous drug abuse are more common among African Americans than whites. Hopefully, education and awareness will reverse this trend and we will see a reduction in disease rates.

[1] Centers for Disease Control, National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 53, No. 17, March, 2005.

[2] Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics Report, Vol. 53, No. 17, March, 2005.

[3] Office of Minority Health, Eliminate Disparities in Cardiovascular Disease.

[4] Centers for Disease Control, MMWR, Health Disparities experienced by Black or African Americans, United States, January, 2005.

[5] Office of Minority Health, Eliminate Disparities in HIV and AIDs.

[6] Office of Minority Health, Eliminate Disparities in HIV and AIDs.

[7] Department of Health and Human Services, Closing the Health Gap.

[8] Department of Health and Human Services, Closing the Health Gap.

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Last Reviewed: Aug 21, 2009

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