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Current Statistics on African American Health

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 harder question follows: What are the causes behind the differences? 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, diabetes, and AIDS.


In 1998 in the United States, more than twice as many African American newborn babies died (13.9 of every 100,000) as white newborns (6 out of every 100,000).1 Similar statistics show that this pattern has existed for many years. The causes of these deaths are many. It is important for a pregnant woman to begin prenatal care as soon as she discovers she is pregnant. 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 1998, this syndrome took the lives of more than twice the number of African American infants (140 out of every 100,000) as white infants (66.4 out of every 100,000).2


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

Leading Cause of Death

Source: CDC, National Vital Statistics Report, Vol 48, No. 11, July 24, 2000 (

Significant differences show up when one looks at how many people of each race the leading diseases kill:

Heart Disease

  • In 1998, coronary heart disease killed 136.3 out of 100,000 African Americans while killing 95.1 per 100,000 whites.3 Click here for diet tips for African Americans that can reduce their risk of heart disease.
  • There were 42.5 deaths from stroke per 100,000 African Americans versus 23.3 deaths per 100,000 from stroke amongst white adults.4 Click here for information on preventing stroke.


  • African American men are at least 50% more likely to develop lung cancer than white men. African American men also die more often from cancer of the lung and bronchus (100.8 per 100,000) than do white men (70.1 per 100,000).5
  • African American men are twice as likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer as white men.6 Click here for more information on prostate cancer in the African American community.
  • Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women overall, and also in African American women, though the rate of breast cancer is slightly lower for African American women than white women. 6 Click here for more information.


  • African Americans have a rate of diabetes of 33.0 per 100,000 compared to a rate of 23.2 in whites.6 Click here for more information.


  • Almost ten times as many African Americans (age 13 and older) contracted AIDS in 1998 (84.2 per 100,000) as whites in that age group.7 The good news is that much of the spread of AIDS can be stopped by simple lifestyle decisions. Click here for information on how to prevent AIDS transmission.
  • Representing only an estimated 12% of the total U.S. population, African Americans make up almost 37% of all AIDS cases reported in the country.8



It is hard to know the exact reasons behind the African American health statistics listed above. We do know that smoking and other tobacco use contribute to diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.9 We also know that obesity and inactivity contribute to many diseases. Unprotected sex and drug abuse enable the transmission of AIDS.

Tobacco Use

In 1997, smoking rates were similar among African American adults (26.7%) and white adults (25.3%).10 In a 1999 study of teens, 40.1% of white high school seniors had smoked in the past month compared with only 14.9% of African American high school seniors.11 However, studies also show that the chemical nicotine (found in tobacco) remains at higher levels in the bodies of African American smokers than white smokers.12 This could have to do with the type of cigarette African Americans smoke, or the way in which their bodies break down nicotine. Approximately three of every four African American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes (versus one in four whites). Menthol may increase the body’s absorption of the harmful ingredients in cigarette smoke.13 Click here for tips on quitting smoking, one of the main causes of lung cancer.

Diet and Nutrition

For some African Americans, a family tradition of soul food may pose a problem when combined with today’s lifestyle, which tends to be less active. Soul foods traditionally depend on fat, sugar and sodium for their flavor. Click here for tips on improving the nutritional content of your diet for improved health.

Unprotected Sex/Drug Abuse

In 1988, among African American men with AIDS, 34% were intravenous (shot into a vein) drug abusers or had female sex partners who were intravenous drug abusers. This was true for only 5% of white men with AIDS.14 Among African American women with AIDS, 74% were intravenous-drug abusers or had male sex partners who were intravenous-drug abusers, compared with 52% for U.S. white women. Overall, 42% of African American AIDS cases and only 7% of white AIDS cases are related to intravenous-drug abuse by heterosexuals (including AIDS in children of drug abusers). Of all U.S. AIDS cases associated with intravenous-drug abuse by heterosexuals, 54% occurred among blacks.14 The AIDS virus can be spread if drug abusers share used needles, and also through sexual contact. For information on drug abuse, as well as treatment and prevention, click here. For information on safer sex, click here.


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. CDC, National Center for Health Statistics (
  2. CDC, National Center for Health Statistics (
  3. CDC, National Center for Health Statistics (
  4. CDC, National Center for Health Statistics (
  5. American Cancer Society, Inc. Cancer Facts and Figures 2000. Atlanta: ACS, 2000.
  6. CDC, National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol 48, No. 11, July 24, 2000
  7. CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (
  8. National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, Divisions of HIV/AIDS Prevention, HIV/AIDS Among African Americans,
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chronic Disease in Minority Populations. Atlanta: CDC, 1994: 2-16. (
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cigarette smoking among adults-United States, 1997. MMWR 1999; 48: 993-6.
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco use among middle and high school students-United States, 1999. MMWR 2000; 49: 49-53.
  12. Caraballo R. racial and ethnic differences in serum cotinine levels of cigarette smokers, Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1991.” JAMA 1998; 280(2):135-9.
  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tobacco Use Among U.S. Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups – African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1998.
  14. Distribution of AIDS Cases, by Racial/Ethnic Group and Exposure Category, United States, June 1, 1981-July 4, 1988 Richard M. Selik, M.D. Kenneth G. Castro, M.D. Marguerite Pappaioanou, D.V.M., Ph.D. AIDS Program, Center for Infectious Diseases (

A racially diverse, volunteer panel of health and other professionals from throughout Ohio reviewed this document. Panel members offer their perspectives on NetWellness content developed for African Americans prior to posting.

The African American Health Center has been brought to you with help from the Ohio Commission for Minority Health, the City of Cincinnati and the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati.

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Go to the African American Health health topic.