Posted on February 4, 2005

How Race Affects Your Health

Jennifer Barrett Ozols, Newsweek, Feb. 3

Anyone can get sarcoidosis, but the disease is eight times more common among African-Americans than among whites. An estimated 40 out of every 100,000 African-Americans suffer from sarcoidosis in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. And it is not the only disease to disproportionately affect people of a particular race.

A report released this week by the American Lung Association offers several examples of how a person’s race can affect their risk of developing various diseases. The report shows that African-American children are more than three times as likely as children of other races to develop sleep apnea. African-American adults are most likely to develop, and to die from, lung cancer. They also have the highest prevalence of asthma, though Hispanics have the highest death rate from the respiratory disease. Native American children, meanwhile, are more likely to suffer from respiratory syncytial virus that children of other races—and they have the second-highest incidence of cystic fibrosis (Caucasians have the highest). And Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are more likely than other races to die from influenza.

Gathered from several sources, much of the data is not new, but the report is one of the most comprehensive compilations on racial disparities in health. “This report highlights some very important and very real differences in the rates of disease among different ethnic groups,” says ALA board member Dr. LeRoy M. Graham, an Atlanta physician and founder of a health-care consulting firm that focuses on issues of health disparity in urban environments. “It’s important for the public to know about these disparities, but also for providers to be aware of them so they are attuned or sensitized to this when they see certain patient populations.”


While ethnicity, and genetics, appears to play a role in the development of some diseases like sarcoidosis, the ALA points out that environmental, economic and cultural factors also affect a person’s risk of developing a lung disease. It notes, for example, that minorities are more likely to live in high-pollution areas, with many multicultural neighborhoods located near industrial sources of air pollution. In addition, it found that certain racial and ethnic groups are more exposed to occupational respiratory hazards than others; Hispanics, in particular, are more likely to be employed in such high-risk occupations. It also noted that unhealthy habits are more common in some communities than others. Smoking, for example, is more prevalent among Native Americans, which puts them at an increased risk for lung cancer and other respiratory problems.

“We see this report as a call to action,” says Donald Woods, assistant vice president for cultural diversity at the American Lung Association. “We want to work in cooperation with those communities of color to address the lung-health disparities.”