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Black Women’s Health: Facing Higher Risks

Carol Baldwin

Last updated: October 20, 2016 7:23 pm

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Black women’s health risks are higher than those for white and Hispanic women when it comes to diabetes, heart disease, cervical cancer and fibroids.

“For Black women, the risk of developing diabetes is great. It affects 1 in 4 women ages 55 years and older and is listed as the fourth leading cause of death for all ages,” according to the Black Women’s Health Imperative. In addition, they note that more black women get diabetes than women of other ethnicities. 1

“Black women suffer rates of heart disease that are twice as high as those among white women,” states the Imperative.  The group also indicates that black women “die from heart disease more often than all other Americans.” 2

Even more alarming, cervical cancer, a very preventable disease, kills more than 40 percent of the nearly 2,000 black women diagnosed with it each year. 3

Additionally, fibroids, non-malignant tumors that may require surgery and a leading factor in the reason for hysterectomies, occur at higher rates in black women. For African-American women, “as many as 50 percent have fibroids of a significant size.” 4

Metabolic Syndrome Puts Black Women at Higher Health Risk

For some of these risks, just why black women are at higher risk for these health issues is unclear. For heart disease, however, contributing factors include higher rates of overweight and obesity, elevated cholesterol levels and high blood pressure (hypertension) among black women. 5

One new study indicates that the combined presence of certain conditions such as large waist size, high blood pressure, low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, high levels of blood fats (triglycerides) and insulin resistance may be to blame for increased risk of heart disease. 6

The presence of some or all of these conditions is often referred to as “metabolic syndrome.” This new study, led by Dr. Michelle Schmiegelow at University Hospital Gentofte in Denmark, suggests, “The cluster of heart risk factors known as the ‘metabolic syndrome’ might raise the risk of heart disease more for black women than it does for white women.” 7

Suggestions to Help Black Women Stay Healthy

There are things that women can do to help promote health and well-being. Doctors may generally recommend:

  • Eating a well-balanced, low-fat diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Having regular checkups—including gynecological
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Staying informed 8

Black Women and Surgical Procedures

Black women have a higher risk of experiencing health issues related to fibroids, which are benign tumors that develop in, within or on the uterus. 9 As women age, they also may experience pelvic organ prolapse, a condition in which the uterus, vagina, bowel or bladder are not adequately held in place within the pelvis and slip out of place or fall.) 10

Symptoms of pelvic organ prolapse may include a heavy feeling in the vagina or lower back, stress urinary incontinence or other urinary symptoms such as urgency, bowel symptoms, discomfort during sex, or feeling a lump in or outside of the vagina. 11 There are nonsurgical and surgical options for treating these conditions. 12

In the case of fibroids, doctors may recommend surgery to remove the fibroids (myomectomy) or may recommend removal of the uterus (hysterectomy). When considering surgical options to alleviate symptoms associated with fibroids, it is important to know as much as possible about how the surgery may be performed, which may include knowing about power morcellators.

Power morcellators are sometimes used to cut or sever large masses of tissue and are most often used during minimally invasive procedures, where incision sites are small.

One of the more alarming risks that accompany use of power morcellators in gynecologic surgeries is their potential for spreading undetected malignant tissue during the procedure, thereby worsening a patient’s prognosis. 13

Because, as the FDA explains, “there is no reliable method for predicting or testing whether a woman with fibroids may have a uterine sarcoma” and due to the “availability of alternative surgical options for most women,” the regulatory agency has warned against the use of power morcellators in the majority of women undergoing myomectomy or hysterectomy for the treatment of fibroids during laparoscopic (minimally invasive) surgeries. 14

For those experiencing pelvic organ prolapse or stress urinary incontinence, some surgical procedures to correct these problems might include the use of transvaginal mesh. Transvaginal mesh has been used in gynecologic surgeries in an attempt to give support to pelvic organs that have slipped or fallen out of their proper place.

But transvaginal mesh has been shown to have serious side effects that the FDA has informed the public are not rare, and that “it is not clear that transvaginal POP [pelvic organ prolapse] repair with mesh is more effective than traditional non-mesh repair…and it may expose patients to greater risk.” 15

Here are some of the complications linked with transvaginal mesh:

  • Pain, including painful sexual intercourse
  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Scarring
  • Urinary problems
  • Organ perforations
  • Erosion of the mesh through the vagina
  • Mesh contraction (shrinkage) leading to vaginal shortening, tightening, or pain 16

The FDA found that erosion of mesh through the vagina is the “most common and consistently reported mesh-related complication from transvaginal POP surgeries using mesh” and that this complication “can require multiple surgeries to repair and can be debilitating for some women.” 17

If you find yourself facing any of these health conditions, or experiencing any of these complications, discuss your treatment options with your doctor.

  1. Black Women’s Health Imperative. Diabetes: Why is This Important for Black Women? (2015). http://www.bwhi.org/issues/diabetes/diabetes/. Accessed July 12, 2015. 

  2. Black Women’s Health Imperative. Heart Disease and Black Women: The Silent Killer that Speaks Volumes. (2015). http://www.bwhi.org/issues-and-resources/heart-disease-and-black-women-the-silent-killer-that-speaks-volumes/. Accessed July 12, 2015. 

  3. Black Women’s Health Imperative. Black Women and Cervical Cancer: The “Other” Cancer. (2015). http://www.bwhi.org/issues-and-resources/black-women-cervical-cancer-the-other-cancer/. Accessed July 12, 2015. 

  4. University of Maryland Medical Center. Uterine Fibroids. (2013). http://umm.edu/programs/diagnosticrad/services/patient-conditions/conditions-we-treat/uterine-fibroids?utm_source=MGH&utm_medium=ppc&utm_term=uterine%20fibroids%20risks&utm_content=Uterine+Fibroid&utm_campaign=Maternal/Fetal+-+Uterine+Fibroids. Accessed July 12, 2015. 

  5. Black Women’s Health Imperative. Heart Disease and Black Women: The Silent Killer that Speaks Volumes. (2015). http://www.bwhi.org/issues-and-resources/heart-disease-and-black-women-the-silent-killer-that-speaks-volumes/. Accessed July 12, 2015. 

  6. HealthDay. Heart Risk Factors May Harm Black Women More Than Whites. (May 20, 2015). http://consumer.healthday.com/cardiovascular-health-information-20/heart-attack-news-357/heart-risk-factors-may-harm-black-women-more-than-whites-699499.html. Accessed August 20, 2015.  

  7. HealthDay. Heart Risk Factors May Harm Black Women More Than Whites. (May 20, 2015). http://consumer.healthday.com/cardiovascular-health-information-20/heart-attack-news-357/heart-risk-factors-may-harm-black-women-more-than-whites-699499.html. Accessed August 20, 2015.  

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Women’s Health. Improving Women’s Health. (Mar. 2015). http://www.cdc.gov/women/initiatives/index.htm. Accessed August 7, 2015; WebMD. What Women Can Do for Their Health. (Jun. 2012). http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/video/rippe-womens-health. Accessed August 7, 2015. 

  9. The University of Maryland Medical Center, Diagnostic Radiology and Nuclear Medicine. Uterine Fibroids. (2013).http://umm.edu/programs/diagnosticrad/services/patient-conditions/conditions-we-treat/uterine-fibroids?utm_source=MGH&utm_medium=ppc&utm_term=uterine%20fibroids%20risks&utm_content=Uterine+Fibroid&utm_campaign=Maternal/Fetal+-+Uterine+Fibroids. Accessed August 7, 2015; WebMD. Uterine Fibroids Health Center. (2015). http://www.webmd.com/women/uterine-fibroids/uterine-fibroids#1. Accessed August 7, 2015.  

  10. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.iuga.org/resource/resmgr/brochures/eng_pop.pdf 

  11. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.iuga.org/resource/resmgr/brochures/eng_pop.pdf 

  12. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.iuga.org/resource/resmgr/brochures/eng_pop.pdf 

  13. http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/ucm424443.htm 

  14. http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/ucm424443.htm 

  15. http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/ucm262435.htm 

  16. http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/ucm262435.htm 

  17. http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/ucm262435.htm